Dept of Education Issues Guidance on Religious Discrimination

(Photo: Pexels, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pexels, Creative Commons)

The United States Department of Education has released a series of actions in an effort to confront discrimination and promote inclusion within schools and encourage respect for students of all faiths and beliefs.

Included in these steps is a website discussing religious discrimination, an updated civil rights complaint form, an increase to the survey of America’s public schools and religious-based bullying, technical assistance for schools, and outreach pertaining to the handling of religious harassment within the educational system.

The Department’s Office for Civil Rights has created a new page on its website that includes information pertaining to federal laws that protect students from religious discrimination.  Links are included to OCR policy guidance, case resolutions, and resources in several languages.

OCR has also updated its online complaint form to state that the office is able to investigate complaints with regards to racial, ethnic, or national discrimination having to do with religion.  The Office says that students, parents, and people of all faiths can file these complaints with OCR even though the laws enforced by the office do not specifically address religious discrimination in education.

“Students of all religions should feel safe, welcome and valued in our nation’s schools,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon. “We will continue to work with schools and communities to stop discrimination and harassment so that all students have an equal opportunity to participate in school no matter who they are, where they come from or which faith, if any, they subscribe to.”

Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, discussed the importance of the inclusion of all students.  She noted Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge implemented in 2011, which offers college students of all faiths and backgrounds the chance to work together to help solve community problems.  Doing so, she said, allows students to cross cultural and religious lines, building a deeper understanding and helping to prevent intolerance.

The department has made several other efforts to address discrimination involving religion recently, including the Civil Rights Data Collection on the number of religious-based bullying or harassment within schools which will allow policymakers to have a better understanding of religious discrimination and how to handle progress moving forward.

In addition, OCR has participated in several roundtables since March through the Justice Department’s Combating Religious Discrimination Today initiative.

In June, a fact sheet was issued by OCR on the issue of discrimination against Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian students.  The fact sheet has been translated into 15 languages in order to ensure that understanding the English language is not a barrier to knowing individual rights under federal civil rights laws.

New regulations for the Equity Assistance Centers have also been created by the Department in order to provide technical assistance by request to public school districts, students and parents on religious discrimination and harassment.

OCR enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that bans discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.  This includes the actual or perceived ancestry of an individual, ethnic characteristics, citizenship, or residency in a country with a dominant religion.