Proposed Ramadan state holiday may stand on shaky ground
A bill introduced last month in the Rhode Island General Assembly would make the last night of Ramadan a state holiday. “Our state was founded on the principle of religious freedom,” its sponsor, Rep. Enrique Sanchez (D-Providence) said in a news release. “Not everyone in Rhode Island is Christian and the state shouldn’t choose one religion to celebrate over others.”
He’s not the first person to cite Rhode Island’s founding heritage as inspiration for actions today. It is true, in large part, that Rhode Island has a history of an unusually broad and comprehensive view of religious freedom. But this principle was not without conflicting interpretations even in the 17th century. It has been a long and winding road since that time.
The first European immigrants to this area came seeking the right to religious liberty. Roger Williams arrived after fleeing conflicts in both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. In those places, settlers were also seeking religious freedom. But only for their own separatist and Puritan Christian theologies. They would soon start hanging Quakers in Massachusetts, and Quakers believe in Christ. In order to avoid continued fighting and killing each other, Williams and others believed religious liberty should extend to all religions. This is the right for which they petitioned the English crown, resulting in the Rhode Island Charter of 1663.
Early Rhode Islanders believed true religious freedom required a separation between the civic life of a political body from the religions of its various citizens. Legislating this difference created tolerance, peace, and prosperity and also made Rhode Island a home to immigrants from all over the world, starting in the early colonial period.
Early Rhode Islanders believed true religious freedom required a separation between the civic life of a political body from the religions of its various citizens. Legislating this difference created tolerance, peace, and prosperity and also made Rhode Island a home to immigrants from all over the world, starting in the early colonial period. It is often said our forefathers did not really mean freedom for everyone — they were Christians, and meant only to promote tolerance of the various Christian sects. In other colonies, this was certainly the case. But Williams at least, and others thinking hard about this, did mean everyone, and Rhode Island became a colonial safe haven for Jews fleeing the ongoing Inquisition in Europe. While we have yet to document early Muslim settlers in colonial Rhode Island, it’s very likely they were here, either as mariners, or as enslaved people from Africa.
The United States adopted the stand that no religion should be seated within the government, and we have become a nation of numerous faiths and denominations. Rhode Island has become dominantly Catholic (an ironic justice, since Catholicism was the one Christian denomination our forefathers mistrusted).
If we close on Ramadan, should we also not close on Yom Kippur? And Diwali?
Today, however, Americans recognize Christmas as a day off from work and the White House sponsors Easter egg hunts. These practices may seem divorced from actual religion, but they do blur the line separating church from state. This blurriness, combined with the fact that a majority of Americans identify as Christians, encourages some to think of America as a Christian nation. This line of thinking, on display today among elected officials and Supreme Court justices, suggests that specifically Christian values should drive our law making and behavior. The separation between Church and State, the principle on which true religious freedom sits, is possibly on shaky ground.
The impulse to go back to our historic Rhode Island roots and set a model for a more inclusive, tolerant approach to civic life, and one that fulfills the promise of freedom for all religions is extremely admirable. But also fraught, in ways both new and historic.
The trend was underway before Rep. Sanchez’s Ramadan bill was referred to the House Special Legislation Committee on Feb. 21. A week earlier, the Lunar New Year became an official holiday in the city of Boston. The Lunar New Year is a designated school holiday in New York City and a state holiday in California.
By having the state choose which religions deserve sanction, are we opening the can of worms Roger Williams sought to close? If we close on Ramadan, should we also not close on Yom Kippur? And Diwali? Are we creating a hierarchy of those religions sanctioned by the State and those which are not, and potentially re-creating the conflicts between them that our early colonists sought to leave behind?
When liberty for all means recognition for none
When Rep. Sanchez says the state should not choose one religion to celebrate over another, based on our heritage and precedent, he is correct. But should it choose two, or three? Even the Christian Orthodox churches claim different days on which to celebrate. Where and how should the State decide to draw a line on whose religion is important enough to recognize? If we are being inspired by our history, perhaps the state should associate itself with none of them.
What would happen if we completely removed all religious holidays from our government calendar, and allowed each citizen to choose those days they must spend in worship for themselves? This would be in the spirit of our history of religious tolerance and choice. Are we brave enough to try?