The Interfaith Case for Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued two rulings last week drastically setting back civil rights: One was the 303 Creative v. Elenis (PDF link) decision paving the way for businesses to discriminate against customers under the guise of free speech, and the other ruling in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (PDF link) effectively ended affirmative action for racial admissions at universities.

Writing on behalf of SCOTUS’ majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that affirmative action for racial admissions violated the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution (which, ironically, was written to protect disenfranchised former slaves in 1868) and that striking it down establishes true equality in university admissions for students of all races.

This argument, of course, ignores the wide breadth of systemic injustices that have been historically baked into the American legal system for centuries, including not just chattel slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow, but also redlining, the racial pay gap, and other injustices inflicted upon people of color since our country’s founding. In the meantime, white Americans — whose ancestors faced little to no systemic oppression (the Irish were indentured servants, not slaves) — had several centuries’ worth of advantages on their Black and Brown counterparts by being allowed to own property and build generational wealth. Affirmative action is meant to correct for these systemic disadvantages by giving additional opportunities to marginalized communities whose ancestors were systemically oppressed.

And as former First Lady Michelle Obama wrote in her statement responding to the decision, affirmative action may be gone for racial minorities, but special advantages still exist for other prospective college students. Kids whose parents make donations to schools (known as “legacy admissions”) are more likely to get accepted, along with those who come from affluent school districts with extensive resources and tutors to help students better prepare for college entrance exams, and prospective students whose families can afford private coaches that help them sharpen their athletic abilities to qualify for sports scholarships. Without affirmative action, the university admission process is even more unequal and skewed in favor of the wealthy and well-connected.

Just as Interfaith argued in our response to the 303 Creative v. Elenis decision, the Court’s opinion on affirmative action is in direct conflict with multiple faith traditions, including the ones that some SCOTUS justices claim to follow.

In the Epistle of James in the Christian Bible, James — a follower of Jesus writing to the Twelve Tribes of Israel — states that everyone deserves opportunity regardless of their background:

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

James 2: 1-4

The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians also makes a strong case for correcting “abundance” to create true equality:

“For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’”

2 Corinthians 8:13-15

Other faith traditions also emphasize the importance of addressing systemic injustices to create a more just and equitable society. In Islam, chapter 51, verse 19 of the Qur’an states, “and in their wealth there is acknowledged right for the needy and destitute.” Jewish scripture also unequivocally opposes racial injustice, with chapter 1, verse 13 of the Yalkut Shimoni stating, “God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world: yellow clay, white sand, black loam, and red soil. Therefore, no one can declare to any race of color of people that they do not belong here since this soil is not their home.”

America’s long history of racial injustices has also not gone unnoticed by Eastern religions. In his book “America Will Be,” Nichiren Buddhist and scholar Dr. Daisaku Ikeda called specifically on the US to heal its racial inequalities:

“The root of the English word heal originally included the meanings ‘totality’ and ‘completeness,’ and the word health has the same root. In this sense, a healed society would be a society that has discovered its sense of wholeness and has achieved equality for every person. This would be a society in which the social system and its laws serve the people. It would be a society in which people respect one another and live with dignity and equality. They would share a deep trust in one another, come to one another’s aid and grow and learn from one another. These are some of the most important objectives of our Soka Gakkai International movement.”

Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, America Will Be!, p. 129

The US has yet to truly account for and repair the countless injustices inflicted on Black Americans, Asian Americans, Indigenous people, and other marginalized communities. The case for reparations for both slavery and genocide of Indigenous peoples, for example, follows this same line of thinking: If someone steals $100,000 from you and uses those ill-gotten gains to build a billion-dollar empire, are you not entitled to a share of that wealth? Affirmative action is not just necessary for ensuring that marginalized communities are on equal footing with their more privileged counterparts, but it’s also deeply rooted in numerous faith traditions around the world.

(Image: Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire. Courtesy of and

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