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The double standard of religious freedom

Despite his natural talent and love for the game, it wasn’t always easy for Samrath Singh to play baseball.

Singh was the first Sikh to play baseball at the NCAA Division I level. Belonging to a religion that requires its members to wear turbans while playing a sport that requires its players to wear helmets is not an easy task.

In an interview with ReligionNews.com, Singh spoke of his struggles growing up as a baseball player.

“Any time I got a helmet, my dad and me would take out all the extra stuffing from the inside,” Singh said. “Then I would tie my joora (bun of hair) really loose, tie a patka (cloth that makes up the turban) on top — and then jam my head in there. It wasn’t ideal, but it got the job done and I was able to play.”

As far as baseball caps go, Singh got away without wearing them his entire life — until college.

“Going into college, some umpires talked to my coach and noted I wasn’t conforming to the uniform policy,” Singh said. “My coach responded and said you’re going to have to allow him to play as he wants, because if you don’t, you’ll be opening up a whole can of worms for yourselves.”

Singh had people who stood up for him and helped him realize his dream of playing college baseball. His is a story of triumph and trailblazing. Because of him, young Sikhs in North America can envision themselves playing baseball at a high level.

In July 2021, Luke Prokop became the first player under an NHL contract to come out as gay. This was huge for the sport of hockey — a sport that tends to feature little diversity at the professional level and has thus historically struggled with inclusion.

When Prokop announced his sexuality, he was immediately celebrated by the entire hockey community. According to his agent, Gerry Johannson, in an interview on the 32 Thoughts podcast, Prokop’s Instagram account went from roughly 2,000 to 60,000 followers in about five hours — although he currently has about 39,000 followers.

Teams, players and fans around the world flooded social media with messages of support and admiration for Prokop. His courage paves the way for other members of the LGBTQ community to pursue their dreams of playing hockey at a high level.

Joseph Kennedy, a former high school football coach and a Christian, did not receive the same support that Singh and Prokop received when trying to exercise their personal freedoms in sport.

Kennedy lost his job in 2015 after he refused to stop praying at the 50-yard line after games — a practice that he had been doing for seven years without any issues.

Initially, Kennedy prayed alone after every game. After a few games, some players asked if they could join. Before long, players and coaches from both teams would join on a regular basis, praising their deity for their health, safety and freedom.

Kennedy challenged his firing in court. The case escalated through the legal system and is currently being decided by the United States Supreme Court. A decision is expected to surface in June.

Several organizations protested Kennedy’s ability to pray, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a Satanist group.

As a society, we have set a double standard for religious freedom.

Photo credit: Collette Cribbins

Several centuries ago, European settlers came to the land now known as North and South America and claimed it as their own. They severely mistreated the people that called the land home, and tried to strip them of both their culture and their religion.

Many decades’ worth of battles resulted in European domination. The indigenous people, most of whom were naturally migrant, were forced to settle on reservations — commonly the least desirable portions of land in each region.

Today, there are programs in place to make restitution to the indigenous people — a noble effort to make amends for the horrible actions committed by the government. Indigenous Peoples Day is now celebrated as a national holiday in the United States, commemorating the history, culture and religion of the Native American people.

During World War II, 1.65 million people were removed from their homes and placed in concentration camps. The the purpose of these camps was to kill Jews, but also to strip individuals of their identities and their religion.

Although nothing can be done to right the wrongs committed against the Jewish people and others, Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day of remembrance for those affected by the Holocaust, is recognized worldwide. The Holocaust is spoken of only in the most reverent terms in our society, showing due respect for the lives lost and changed and recognizing the importance of religious and other freedom.

Throughout the 1800s, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Christian group, were pushed from state to state by angry mobs, which constantly beat the men, raped the women, and ransacked the homes and businesses of the members of the Church.

In 1838, the state of Missouri issued Executive Order 44, allowing for the extermination — spontaneous killing — of members of the Church. This came out of fear that their increasing numbers would sway election results. The order was not rescinded until 1976 — only 46 years ago.

Shortly after the publication of Executive Order 44 came the Hawn’s Mill Massacre, which saw the murder of about 17 defenseless men and boys, ages nine and up, because of their religion.

After years of constantly being forced from their homes, the Latter-day Saints set out on a journey across the plains toward Utah, where they found asylum.

Many of the Latter-day Saint refugees did not make it to their destination. They were wearied by harsh winter weather, starvation, sickness and strife.

Despite the constant injustice that the Latter-day Saints faced, very few people outside of the Church are even familiar with the story. Nothing is done to remember the robbery of religious freedom or honor the victims of these crimes.

Once again, the double standard of religious freedom shows itself.

“Religious freedom doesn’t just deal with religion,” said Jeffrey Meservy, a religion professor at BYU-Idaho. “It’s the ability to act and think the way one believes and then be able to live accordingly … If freedom of religion falls, all the other freedoms (fall) too.”

In 2017, the city of Boston denied a Christian group’s request to fly its flag outside the city hall. The city’s flag-flying program allows private organizations, companies, and activist groups to fly their flags outside the city hall. The Christian group’s request was the first one the city ever denied.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious freedom, stating that the city of Boston violated the First Amendment rights of the religious group.

Our society operates on a pendulum. For centuries, the slowly swinging pendulum was on one side: pro-Christian, anti-minority religion. When society finally realized how it was mistreating minority religions, the pendulum quickly swung to the other side. Now, society gives itself a free pass to give Christians a hard time.

We see daily evidence of this in the fact that it is a socially acceptable pastime to make jokes at the expense of Christians, but it is a cancelable offense to make jokes at the expense of members of minority religions.

We can only assume that eventually the pendulum will swing back, and then forth, perpetuating the notion that the two sides must be rivals.

We claim to be a progressive society when in reality we are moving laterally in terms of religious freedom.

Photo credit: Collette Cribbins

Alicia Young has explored all kinds of religions and is well-versed on the subject of religious freedom.

“When a certain belief or religion is celebrated and encouraged in society, and a differing religious belief is deemed to be unacceptable to the point where visible representation is removed, it’s evidenced that we have strayed immensely from the religious freedoms that we used to possess,” Young said.

When one group persecutes another simply because of their differences, animosity is sure to build, and things are sure to get ugly. We have to stop the pendulum from swinging altogether.

“The challenge that we have in society today is (that) we have this win-at-all-costs mentality, and that’s not how it’s going to work if we’re going to honestly honor religious freedom,” Meservy said.

While we recognize our differences, we must retain our common goals in mind. Whether we are Christian, Sikh, Jewish, members of the LGBTQ community, or any other group seeking the ability to believe and act how they feel they ought to, we all want the same thing: freedom.

The only way we can truly progress as a society is to allow others the same freedoms that we so desperately want for ourselves.


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