IJCR Blasts Religious Bullying

Earlier this month, I was invited to testify before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at its high-profile hearing on bullying in the public schools. It was my second time addressing the Commission since departing the agency, where I served as staff director until three and a half years ago, but it was my first appearance since a Democratic working majority assumed power earlier this year. Whatever differences one may have with their politics, I can report that the new majority and its interim director conducted the hearing professionally and smoothly. More importantly, I found that the Commissioners appeared to be both attentive and sympathetic to the message of The Anti-Semitism Initiative; namely, that Congress must pass legislation to prohibit religious bullying and harassment of religious minority students, including Jewish schoolchildren.

School-age children, I argued, are peculiarly vulnerable to the sting of hate and bias incidents, so it is especially important to provide them with the full extent of constitutional support. Sadly, there are many recent cases in which religious minority school children have been physically tormented by their classmates. Over the last few years, dozens of students at some schools have conducted “Kick a Jew Day” on school grounds during school hours. Some of these events may have been inspired by the “Kick a Ginger Day” episode of the South Park television program, which evolved into “Kick a Jew Day” on dozens if not hundreds of Facebook pages. The problem is not limited to Jewish students. According to a 2007 report, two out of five New York Sikh schoolchildren who wear turbans (or patkas) are physically harassed. Some Muslim children have been severely beaten for their religion, including one junior high school student who reported being kicked so hard in the groin that he bled in his urine.

IJCR has been fighting this problem for several years. Last October, in response to a multi-year campaign by IJCR and several other organizations, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which I once led, announced that it would return to the policy on ethno-religious discrimination which I had issued in 2004. Under this policy, OCR will investigate complaints of ethnic or ancestral discrimination against groups like Jews and Sikhs that have both ethnic and religious characteristics. IJCR has commended Assistant Secretary of Education for Russlynn Ali for this policy but also insist that more work still must be done. When addressing OCR, we have pointed out that this new policy must be backed up with strong enforcement and public education. In addressing the Civil Rights Commission, I argued that Congress also has a role to play.

As Congress approaches reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and No Child Left Behind, this is an auspicious time to urge legislation to address anti-Semitism in the public schools. Similar opportunities may arise during the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, but the current reauthorization process is an obvious place to begin.

In one sense, the work has already begun. This can be seen, for example, in the Safe Schools Improvement Act, introduced by Rep. Sanchez in the House of Representatives and by Senators Bob Casey and Mark Kirk. While IJCR takes no position on that bill, which may be included in NCLB reauthorization, we are pleased to note that religious harassment is included in this bill together with various other forms of prohibited discrimination.

This is an important inclusion, regardless of one’s views of other provisions of the legislation, and would be a useful step forward. In order to be really useful, though, this bill would need to be amended to include a straightforward statutory bar on religious harassment accompanied by OCR enforcement. The same can be said of analogous provisions of the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which would provide similar anti-bullying provisions with respect to higher education. NCLB reauthorization will provide a very important opportunity for Congress to ban religious harassment and bullying in the public schools.

Alternatively, Congress could pass a free-standing bill which would amend Title VI to prohibit religious discrimination in federally funded educational programs and activities, subject to certain carefully drawn exceptions. During the last Congress, Senator Arlen Specter and Rep. Brad Sherman introduced precisely this sort of legislation, based in part on work by IJCR and the Zionist Organization of America. Whatever form the final legislation might take, it is important that Congress address the problem of anti-Semitic harassment in some form. As I urged the Commissioners, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights can play a vitally important role in convincing Congress to act now to prevent harassment of Jewish students and other religious minorities.