Religious Freedom laws in the U.S. : Freedoms used to justify discrimination?

I taught my students about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law that is being used to pass similar laws in various states in the U.S. The most controversial case involves  a similar law in Indiana. The contours of the case point to the idea that private businesses can discriminate against LGBT couples. But the ramifications of the case extend to other groups, point out civil rights activists. I spoke to my students about the origins of the freedom of religion provision, starting with the first amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These words have been interpreted variously and are being fought over. The meanings and interpretation of these words are being debated, both by the socially conservative and the

liberals.rel free

While cases such as the Hobby Lobby are egregious examples of what can occur when large corporations work to deny healthcare to their employees, there are smaller instances of abuses of rights – in terms of daily indignities or insults that LGBT folk may have to put up with. And this brings us to the spirit of why these laws can actually hurt the minorities – not just LGBT, but potentially Blacks, Muslims, Jews and anyone who doesn’t look like a person who could fit in, and with whom the business doesn’t want to ‘do business’. The Atlantic has a powerful piece on this story that is developing, as we speak. The author of this piece points out two main issues with this law in Indiana. He says “First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.” This clearly seems to be a case of interest groups lobbying to introduce provisions in laws that are intended to create an impact / make some noise, in particular, since many states are legalizing gay marriage.

So, is ‘Freedom’ an American virtue? If one would look closely at how the founding farmers came to the conclusion that there must be no established religion, one would conclude that freedom was constructed as an ideal that had to be held. While it is framed as an absolute ‘American virtue’, it is part and parcel of the American exceptional narrative – not bad or evil in itself – but it can certainly have certain implications, if taken to extremes. As my colleague pointed out to me, after the class, the very people who are fighting for the freedom of religious rights in Indiana are the ones who are creating a scare about Shariah law – and telling Muslims they cannot use their laws in American courts – if this is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

While teaching my students about freedom of religion in America today, I realized that i’ve (accidentally) become an Americanist. It is surprising that I can teach a few courses on American politics/ administration, but not a single one on South Asia/ India. Not sure if I should be proud of that! While I may have become an accidental Americanist, I do appreciate the insights I am gaining, both in teaching ideas to my students, and in delving into issues that are shaping contemporary America. The biggest challenge in analyzing many of the issues of contempory America stem from not parsing out the intended consequences and the narrative around issues. The narrative of freedom is used to create un-freedoms for some. This is a factor of American public life that is often lost sight of. Only by being vigilant and responsive to challenges such as these can we all ensure that the spirit of the American constitution remains alive.

Teaching kids about Philanthropy – Talk about it or show how it is done?


On a recent trip to Dearborn, MI, this summer, I witnessed what could be considered the only model of teaching philanthropy for young Arab Americans. I met the team from the Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP), an organizational affiliate of  ACCESS in Dearborn, MI, the largest Arab-American philanthropic organization in the country. Titled Teen grant-making Initiative, this initiative aims to teach high school students how effective grant-making happens, by giving them access to grant-funds. “We give a group of high-school students $5000 and expert advice, along with ongoing mentoring, through the academic year, to ensure that they learn not only the skills in identifying, developing a relationship with potential grantees, but also skills in evaluation,” one of the office bearers of ACCESS pointed out. She further mentioned that this has become one of the most exciting and sought-after projects for youth, attracting praise, attention and funding from parents, foundations and the local beneficiaries.

Source: Lilly School,IUPUI Website.
Source: Lilly School,IUPUI Website.

In this brief article, I will look at the TGI and other recent research on giving, to shed light about teaching youngsters about giving, through doing – a hands-on approach that seems to be working rather well. This learning by doing methodology is proving effective and is drawing the attention of other schools and foundations that are interesting in implementing it. Against this is the notion of combining doing with talking about philanthropy is more effective.

A recent report titled Women Give 2013, produced by the Lilly School of Philanthropy points out that talking to kids is more effective than just showing kids how to do philanthropy. As the Website points out : “The IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy study is among the first to analyze and compare what parents can do to encourage their children’s charitable behavior. It examines two approaches through which parents teach children about charitable giving: (1) talking to children about charitable giving and (2) role-modeling charitable giving. For this study, role-modeling is defined as parents giving to charity. The study also investigates whether girls and boys participate differently in giving and volunteering, expanding the Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s exploration of how gender affects charitable giving. It follows the same 903 children over two time periods, 2002-2003 and 2007-2008.”

My own research examines modernity and its impact on giving behavior among Arab Americans and American Muslims. I am deeply interested in learning how giving and philanthropic norms are understood and also passed on from one generation to another, in Western societies. What is the role of technology, how are family norms influencing giving and in what shape/form are religious and secular values in giving being re-imagined, are some of the questions that interest me.

The Arab American and American Muslim giving[i] landscape is quite rich. In particular, involvement by youth in giving is on the rise, with Muslim Student Associations, nonprofit volunteering and other forms of civic engagement providing the outlets and opportunities for youth to participate, give back to their communities (however broadly defined). This is evident when one takes a cursory look at organizations such as Muslims without Borders, Arab American Institute, Islamic Relief, and Zakatability.

Teaching moments all around us

Islamic Relief’s Vice President for Fundraising, Anwar Khan told me a few months ago that they try to teach young children about the value of giving by organizing informal “giving circles” in schools and also encourage them to organize fundraisers etc. “Even though they raise $2000 or so, this is an investment in their education, in terms of them becoming aware, responsible and caring individuals. The value of teaching them these core Islamic principles is in itself worth all the investment in time and talent,” he added.

Finally, one needs to remember that teaching by words and practice may be the most effective way to teach a value. As the Lilly School survey sums it up, nicely: “That finding holds true regardless of the child’s sex, age, race, and family income. Children whose parents talk to them about giving are 20 percent more likely to give to charity than children whose parents do not discuss giving with them. Many of the Arab-American children and youth I have interacted with seem to have an environment, where values of giving are spoken of, quite often.

Based on these new findings and also the ‘traditionally’ held wisdom, perhaps educators are better off both designing their curricula by talking about charity and philanthropy and being kind in real life – showing caritas and modelling it in their behavior- a difficult undertaking, indeed.


[i] One needs to distinguish between Arab Americans (not all of who are Muslims, in fact a majority of them are Christians) and American Muslims. Often, these are conflated, and I would like to point this out, upfront. The estimates for number of Arab Americans is in the range of about 6 million, roughly, the same as American Muslims.