As someone who wears a Yarmulke every day, I have always considered one of the most important components of a religiously pluralistic community to be the acceptance of public expressions of religio-spiritual identity. I have been fortunate to wear my Yarmulke as a native New Yorker, and have always found my religious expression to be accepted, and frankly, not especially unique. But for many others around the world, religio-spiritual expression in public can be a tense, if not dangerous, proposition that highlights how the relationship between government and religious minorities mirrors society’s broader attitudes about religious pluralism and expression.
There is no better case study for the challenges of religious expression in the public sphere than the tension in France surrounding the wearing of Hijab in public spaces. Recently, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls opined that the Hijab should be banned from French Universities, as it has similarly been banned in other public settings such as public schools and government buildings. He stated, “It should be done,” while also acknowledging that “there are rules in the constitution that would make such a ban difficult.” Thankfully, numerous government ministers criticized the Prime Minister’s remarks, but this sentiment is no surprise for students of French laïcité, a philosophy of secularism that has frequently clashed with notions of free expression for Muslim groups and other religious minorities. This tension has become particularly heated in the wake of recent terrorist attacks committed by ISIS in Paris, as Islam has been increasingly targeted for condemnation by European nationalists. But beneath this bigotry, the fundamental question of how to create a public sphere that is inclusive and non-discriminatory remains. In other words, is it possible to create a public square that neither presents a sanitized secularism devoid of any public religious expression such as Yarmulkes and Hijab, while also not promoting the rights of expression for one group at the cost of another?
For an example on how to create a public square that is open to all, religious, secular and everything in between, we should look towards the work being done by Chris Stedman and the Yale Humanist community for their recently announced Green Light Project.
This project creates a “nonreligious symbol celebrating universal human values that can resonate with all people.” The Yale Humanist community conceived of this idea in response to the classic office challenge of how to promote winter holiday celebrations without privileging those celebrating Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanza. Rather than sanitize the public space, the Yale Humanist Community has bravely undertaken the challenge of creating symbols of their own that communicate values and ideas that are currently not represented in the typical winter holiday celebration. Next year, this symbol will stand next to symbols from other traditions, creating a broader and more diverse public space, making Yale more open and welcoming to every religious and spiritual group.
This project will not solve all problems of religious expression in the public sphere. There are many religious groups whose holidays do not occur during the winter, and therefore, would not be able to participate in a similar fashion. To make this truly equitable, we would probably need to set aside portions of communal space throughout the year for every group to display and represent their religio-cultural heritage and celebrations. But for now, the inclination showed by the Yale Humanist Community does imply that the public sphere could be repurposed for religious and spiritual expression more often, allowing for groups to display their beliefs in public throughout the year. We can either join France and sanitize our public space to allow for no diversity of expression, or we can follow the lead of the Yale Humanist community and begin to have conversations about a diversity of symbols and styles for representing our beliefs in public, making our public spaces more diverse and inclusive than ever before.
Image provided by Green Light Project.