By Jaevion Nelson
The religious freedom guaranteed in our Constitution and articulated in other pieces of legislation is a façade when you think of the discrimination people in Jamaica who identify as non-Christians encounter.
According to the United States Department of State's International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, there "were reports of societal discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice" in Jamaica. Although we take pleasure in pretending this does not happen in Jamaica, the deity you worship, which in our case is Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour, can determine how you are treated as a person. Jamaica has, however, been receiving high marks for religious freedom. But my suspicion is that the bigotry is hardly reported. The Rastafarians seem to be the only ones who are vocal on this issue.
DISCRIMINATION IN JAMAICA
It's not uncommon that your participation in Christian observances and rituals are expected by the vast majority of institutions (both government and non-government). At most events, you are expected to pay homage to a deity you do not believe in. But would it be so difficult to have a multi-faith prayer since we absolutely must invite the presence of a supreme being before we commence an event? Atheist, Rastafarian, Muslim, and other non-Christian students are often forced to attend devotions. Apparently, this is the only place and time school administrators can make important announcements and allow teachers to mark the register. Jamaica College even has a crusade for its students (yet they're still not one of the top schools by CSEC passes). Some students might even be told they can't dress according to their religious practice. I suppose we really are a Christian country and there is seemingly no space for non-Christians in the developed country we envisage becoming by 2030. If you are economically privileged, then you might be lucky (in some settings) as people would hardly (or blatantly) and boastfully be prejudiced towards you. For the rest of us … dawg nyam wi suppah.
On September 1, 2013, the Jamaica Observer reported that a Muslim student by the name of Dauriyah Dyer who passed her Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) for St Hugh's was told she cannot "adjust the style of the tunic to suit her religion's requirements". (See Muslim family, St Hugh's fuss over girl's dress in the Jamaica Observer). Islamic laws require that females, upon entering puberty, cover their entire body except their hands and face. I'm sure St Hugh's has a functional computer with Internet access to Google this fact instead of beating their chest about so-called school rules.
Kimberley Hibbert, the Observer reporter who broke the story, said the principal's secretary referred to the parent as a "troublemaker". In the secretary's much "esteemed" opinion, she has "been [at St Hugh's] for 13 years and four Muslim students have passed through the school and none of them have had a problem with the uniform". Somehow this makes the school's decision (at the time) right. Her ignorant cheekiness is beyond appalling! The comments on the online version of the article amplify the frightening reality of the vast majority of non-Christians in this country. Thankfully, the school and Dyer's family have arrived at a solution.
Not so long ago, we persecuted and blatantly denied Rastafarians their rightful place in Jamaica. Shortly after our Independence from our colonisers, there was the Coral Gardens Massacre in 1963. There are many stories of oppression against them. Some children even had to become a bald-headed dread to be admitted in schools, and they couldn't get employment.
CHRISTIANITY IN JAMAICA
The ironic thing is that Christianity was imported to Jamaica and used to make us 'civil' about 501 years ago. Apparently, 'the practice of religious cultures [of our African parents] was more than shocking and the use of bones, feathers and superstitions was sacrilegious' to missionaries who came to save us. We should all be thankful to Spanish colonisers for showing us the true way and to the British for ensuring some of these practices such as obeah are outlawed. Let's all praise the Lord that we are no longer the 'ignorant beasts incapable of being educated and "saved" that they thought our fore parents were (see http://scholar.library.miami.edu/emancipation/religion2.htm).
In post-colonial Jamaica, the overwhelming majority of people are Christians of varying denominations and they have four recognised holidays - Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas. There are no religious holidays for religious minorities. Many of our schools are so-called 'Christian schools' despite now being (fully or part) funded by the government. There is only a handful of schools of other religions.
It is inconsolable that the 29,000 Rastafarians, 1,800 Hindus, 500 Jews, 1,500 Muslims, 270 Bahais and 21 per cent who have no religious affiliation (according to the latest census) must undergo this. It is time that the freedom of religion articulated in the Constitution becomes a reality for everyone of us.
Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.