In March 2020, education institutions in the United States and around the world helped prevent the spread of the coronavirus by moving all in-person courses online. In response, The Foundation for Religious Literacy announced a rapid-response challenge grant to help 1791 Delegates and is partners launch ReligionAndPublicLife.com, a distance learning platform. Although it is unclear how long the “social distancing” strategy will be necessary, high school and college educators are in need of online resources to use now and to later integrate into the classroom, if and when and if things return to normal.
To support educators during this pandemic, ReligionAndPublicLife.com offers learning modules to advance the civic competencies of religious literacy and legal literacy. The site supports students, instructors, and institutions in the following ways. High school and college students advance their education and earn certificates for completing a series of modules. Instructors supplement their courses by assigning these modules in their online classes or for independent studies, and to hopefully later integrate the work into classroom exercises. And high schools and colleges are invited into a partnership to offer academic credit for students who complete module sequences.
Just as the world is experiencing the uncertainty of coronavirus, the United States is experiencing an unprecedented change in demographics. In 2012, Protestants, for the first time in U.S. history, became a minority, representing forty-eight percent of the population, Pew Research Center reports. Consequently, in 2012, the United States became the first democracy in human history to become a nation of religious minorities––where no one religious group represented more than half of the population. The United States is experiencing an unprecedented religious diversity. It is, therefore, imperative that we prepare the next generation to do what no previous generation has done––to self-govern a nation of religious minorities.
Even in our most stable of times, many schools and colleges are not equipped to promote the civic competencies of religious literacy and legal literacy. Often students receive little or no civic education about religion. Teachers are often ill-equipped to promote the academic study of religion. And school districts have few constitutionally-friendly resources about the academic study of religion. Consequently, generations of citizens have misperceptions and stereotypes about religion and non-religion, which can breed social hostilities, religious-based bullying, and even violence. Unfortunately, postsecondary schools provide teachers and school administrators with little or no training about the legal frameworks that guarantee religious freedom as a constitutional and human right. As a result, many educators, and in turn, their students, are confused about the civic promises and legal parameters for governing the academic study of religion in public schools and afterschool programs.
What effect does a religiously illiterate society have on the most vulnerable among us? What effect does a legally illiterate society have on how people treat one another in private and public life?
The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding reported that bullying has recently become a significant problem for Muslim children. More than two in five (42%) Muslims with children in K–12 school report bullying of their children because of their religion, compared with 23% of Jews, 20% of Protestants, and 6% of Catholics. A teacher or other school official instigated one in four bullying incidents involving these Muslim children.
Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims and have been targets of hate crimes. In March 2018, the Sikh Coalition reported an average of “one hate crime per week since the start of 2018.”
In 2017, Jews experienced an all-time high in religion-based violence against them. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that “the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose 57 percent in 2017.” This was “the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.” Echoing the rise of anti-Muslim hate crimes in public schools, the ADL attributed the sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents to “a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row.”
In 2020, “supporters of domestic and international extremist groups have encouraged followers to conduct attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, reports the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security. In seeking to build a “racially pure nation,” these groups have “encouraged followers to conduct attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic to incite panic, target minorities and immigrants, and celebrate the deaths of their enemies.” This has put religious and racial minorities at greater risk, reports the Anti-Defamation League. State officials, like in New York, are not only having to manage the heathcare crisis but also create a new hotline for minorities to report Coronavirus-related hate crimes.
These alarming trends suggests that people of all ages have been exposed to chronic and escalating acts of intolerance and violence. At the same time, Americans have an increased sensitivity to religious discrimination against Muslims and Jews. Historically, many Christians in America––Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on––also faced social hostilities and violence. These acts of bullying and discrimination often occur when the general public is illiterate about religion and the law.
ReligionAndPublicLife.com empowers students, educators, and institutions to promote two fundamental civic competencies: legal literacy and religious literacy. Doing so, we believe, will cultivate an informed citizenry who takes seriously the constitutional commitment to equal protection under the law.