Today, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter and U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman announced the introduction of legislation to protect students from religious discrimination.
Recently, there have been multiple incidents involving anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Sikh epithets, slurs and obscenities, and even physical violence towards students at American schools.
"All students should be protected from discrimination and harassment on the basis of their religion as well as their race, color, and national origin," said Senator Specter. "We need to close the loop-hole that allows students to be harassed and threatened because of their religion. The law specifically forbids discrimination on the basis of religion in virtually every other area, including employment and housing, and it's about time it protects our students as well. This legislation will give the Department of Education clear jurisdiction over all incidents involving harassment on the basis of religion and will assure all of our students are equally protected."
"We need to act to protect students of all faiths against invidious discrimination and harassment, which is why I am joining with Senator Specter to amend the Civil Rights Act," said Congressman Brad Sherman. "No student should be subjected to discrimination on the ground of their religious beliefs. Currently, the Department of Education has the authority under existing law to protect Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh students and, frankly, I'm flabbergasted that they have not already acted to protect these students."
Congress passed Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect students from discriminatory harassment. Title VI prohibits discrimination based on "race, color, or national origin." Unfortunately, the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education (OCR) recently revised its policy and decided that it does not apply to acts of discrimination against Jewish students (and by implication students of groups with both religious and ethnic characteristics).
The Department of Education (DOE) has the authority under Title VI to act independently now to protect students from Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh discrimination. In fact, surprisingly, the current position of the Department of Education (DOE) is a reversal of an earlier interpretation which served to protect these students as the Specter-Sherman legislation would require.
A number of recent and unfortunate incidents that highlight the need for a new interpretation include the following:
·At the University of North Dakota, a student was harassed by fellow students with anti-Semitic slurs and was shot at with a pellet gun.
·At the University of California at Irvine, a Holocaust memorial was destroyed; posters have depicted women in traditional Muslim garb saying "God bless Hitler;" swastikas have defaced campus property; and a Jewish student was told to "Go back to Russia where you came from."
·At the University of Illinois a Hindu college student was assaulted and called a "terrorist."
· A Sikh seventh-grader in New Jersey faced serious and repeated harassment, including taunts of "Osama" and a physical assault on school grounds that resulted in head injuries and contusions.
·A Muslim college student in Illinois was beaten with a handgun in a restroom where her attacker scrawled on the mirror, "Kill the Muslims" and the same student had a swastika and "Die Muslims" drawn on her locker.
The Specter-Sherman bill has provisions to ensure that it does not affect the operation of parochial schools and other types of non-secular education institutions. It also will not require any schools to accommodate the religious obligations of students beyond the requirements of current law.
Congressman Eliot Engel is an original cosponsor of Congressman Sherman's legislation.