Thomas Jefferson was both one of America’s greatest patrons of education and defenders of religious freedom but a top official in Jefferson’s home state trades in religious hate in his push to dumb down Virginia’s best schools.
Nestled in the DC suburbs, America’s best high school (Thomas Jefferson High School) is named for the Declaration of Independence’s author and is currently the site of an ugly campaign of religious bigotry and “cancel culture” led by Virginia’s Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.
Last week, Qarni held a “listening session” on the Governor’s proposed changes to Virginia’s magnet – or “Governor’s” – schools. However, Qarni refused to allow Asra Nomani, a Muslim woman and parent at TJHS in northern Virginia, to speak.
In an email to the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA), Qarni called Nomani’s religious beliefs “hateful” and falsely claimed she is part of a hate group. Then, Qarni blocked the school’s PTSA from participating in a public forum about the school because Nomani was the PTSA’s designated representative.
Nomani, who was duly chosen by the democratically-elected PTSA to voice their concerns about Qarni’s proposed changes to the school’s admissions policies, was personally attacked for her religious views.
In dismissing Nomani and the PTSA, Qarni stated, “I am not going to let that process be dominated by individuals or organizations engaging in vitriolic hateful discourse.”
What is so troubling about Qarni’s response is that it had nothing to do with her views as a parent, but rather his opposition to her religious beliefs.
Nomani is the co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement, a national group that promotes the rights of women and peace within her Islamic faith.
Qarni, who is himself a Muslim, has never explained what is so hateful about Nomani’s advocacy of the rights of women and peace within her faith – or why her personal beliefs disqualify her from speaking on an education panel.
But Qarni’s hateful attacks mask his real agenda – to replace meritocracy at top schools with “racial equity” and silence his strongest critics.
As Virginia’s Education Secretary, Qarni recently established a task force to address the lack of diversity in Virginia’s 18 “Governor’s” schools, including TJHS, which use academic exams and qualifications for admissions.
Qarni argues that the low enrollment of black students in the Governor’s schools is proof of systemic racism in the admissions process. And to “correct” the perceived inequity, Qarni wants to impose racial quotas and other changes.
However, Nomani argues that the changes Qarni is pushing would actually discriminate against Asian students like her son.
Over 70% of the school’s students are ethnically Asian – and last week, they were criticized throughout Qarni’s listening session for making up such a large percentage of the student body.
Parents like Nomani believe there are better ways to address the issue without lowering standards for admissions and the quality of the program – or disadvantaging Asian students. However, Qarni denied her and the PTSA a voice.
In 1779, the high school’s namesake, Thomas Jefferson, authored Virginia’s statue on religious freedom which states no one:
“shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
But Virginia’s current education secretary seems to believe religious freedom is not for that kind of Muslim, let alone a woman.
In pushing his agenda, Qarni has replaced thoughtful public debate with name calling and outright discrimination against the people he is supposed to serve.
Over 250 years after Jefferson’s great defense of tolerance in the public sphere, Virginia is now home to official acts of religious bigotry in service of undermining educational excellence.
Jefferson must be rolling in his grave.
Tina Ramirez is the President of Hardwired Global, a nonprofit dedicated to religious freedom and tolerance education. She is former staff director of the bipartisan Congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus and resides in Chesterfield, VA.