Opinion: Minority religions need public presence

Asma Uddin and Greg Dolin

Recently, the state of Michigan decided it would no longer defend a robust religious presence in the public square.

Just last year, the state filed a brief supporting the presence of religious symbols—most prominently a cross—in the flag and seal of Pennsylvania's Lehigh County. In a sudden about face, new Attorney General Dana Nessel decided that doing so “no longer represents the legal position of the state of Michigan.” 

In so deciding, Michigan ignores the repercussions for religious minorities.

Visitors walk around the 40-foot Maryland Peace Cross dedicated to World War I soldiers on Feb. 13, 2019, in Bladensburg, Md.

The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments later this month in a case involving a large Latin cross in Maryland. Another case involved a war memorial shaped like a statue of Jesus. These cases will play a crucial role in determining whether America upholds its promise of guaranteeing every citizen’s free exercise of religion.

In these cases, opponents argue that permitting the government to recognize religious history and practices runs the risk of marginalizing minority religions. The argument has it backwards — government’s engagement with and recognition of its citizens’ religious practices protects minority religious believers.

In the U.S. today, even if we banish Christian symbols from public spaces, Americans will still come across Christian symbols, history, imagery, and narrative. Minority religions in America do not enjoy this same pervasiveness.

Most people are not familiar with Jewish ritualistic practices like kapporot (which, according to some customs, involves the slaughter of a chicken which is then donated to a needy family) or the sale and later repurchase of chammetz (foodstuff prohibited for consumption during Passover).

Similarly, most Americans are not familiar with Muslim ritual animal sacrifice on the annual Feast of the Sacrifice or even the dawn-till-dusk fast during the month of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar. The unfamiliarity in turn often breeds suspicions or worse—discrimination and hate crimes.

To make these practices more familiar to society at large, minority communities deeply appreciate when political leaders acknowledge these unique religious customs. Their participation sends a message that adherents of a minority faith are full members of the community and that their religious practices are welcome and not deserving of suspicion.

A high-profile example of such acknowledgment is the annual menorah lighting that takes place in front of the White House. Another example is Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, participating in the ceremonial sale of chametz referenced above. The White House also typically hosts dinners for both Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that marks the conclusion of Ramadan.

These official acts of “recognition” would be banned under the interpretation of the Constitution put forward by opponents of public religious displays. Their interpretation would prohibit any official act that could be interpreted as endorsing a religion. It is incontrovertible that a law declaring a particular faith the “official” state religion or forcing people to pay to support a particular denomination would be unconstitutional, but the Constitution never contemplated a complete ban on government involvement with religion.

If Lehigh County is ordered to change its flag and seal, the effect on the county’s Christian majority will pale in comparison to the effect on religious minorities. A decision that requires the government to forego any interaction, no matter how minor, with religion, will disproportionately hurt practitioners of minority faiths.

Asma Uddin is the author of the forthcoming book "When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America's Fight for Religious Freedom."

Greg Dolin is a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and an associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.