Thursday, February 28, 2013

Prayer in Public Schools

Over on our Facebook page, I posted a picture I found on the Being Liberal page, and have posted here, dealing with prayer in public schools.  A gentleman left a comment stating that the premise of the meme was false because often school staff do not understand or know the law.  To emphasize his point, he linked to a story titled Muslim Prayer Allowed in San Diego--Christian Prayer Denied in Bayonne

From the story –
Somehow I missed hearing about this story until yesterday, and when I did so, I listened carefully, then read thoroughly about this development. My ire is raised…for it is reported that in Carver, a San Diego elementary public school, a time during class hours has been set aside for Muslim led prayers, and that the school is now offering classes in Arabic.

Carver school no longer serves pork and other foods which conflict with fundamental Muslims diet restrictions. In addition, single gender classes for girls have been set up there.

When I read this, my mind raced to Jeremy Jerschina, the valedictorian of his graduating class, who was forbidden to include a prayer in his address to the assembled people during the ceremonies.

The author went on to link and post quotes from two stories: 1) Muslim prayers in school debated and 2) a story about a controversy over a prayer in the Valedictory Address of student Jeremy Jerschina (unfortunately the link to the original story was broken).  The opening five paragraphs and the story overview were quoted, but the story went on to add more context to the situation. 
Supporters of Carver say such an accommodation is legal, if not mandatory, under the law. They note the district and others have been sued for not accommodating religious needs on the same level as non-religious needs, such as a medical appointment.

Islam requires its adherents to pray at prescribed times, one of which falls during the school day.

While some parents say they care more about their children's education than a debate about religious freedom, the allegations – made at a school board meeting in April – have made Carver the subject of heated discussions on conservative talk radio. District officials have been besieged by letters and phone calls, some laced with invective.

The issue has drawn the attention of national groups concerned about civil rights and religious liberty. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, Anti-Defamation League, American Civil Liberties Union and the Pacific Justice Institute are some of the groups monitoring developments in California's second-largest school district.

Among the critics is Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel with the nonprofit, Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center devoted to “defending the religious freedom of Christians.”

He said he's “against double standards being used,” such as when there is a specific period for Muslim students to pray and not a similar arrangement for Christians.

Carver's supporters noted that Christianity and other religions, unlike Islam, do not require their followers to pray at specific times that fall within school hours, when children by law must be in school. Amid the controversy, the district is studying alternatives to the break to accommodate student prayer.

Capitalizing on what it considers a precedent-setting opportunity created by the Carver situation, the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute has offered to help craft a district wide “Daily Prayer Time Policy.”

In a letter, the religious-rights organization urged the district to broaden its accommodations to Christians and Jews by setting aside separate classrooms for daily prayer and to permit rabbis, priests and other religious figures to lead children in worship on campuses.

A lawyer representing the district said those ideas would violate the Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The uproar over Carver comes as schools across the country grapple with how to accommodate growing Muslim populations. In recent weeks, the University of Michigan's Dearborn campus has been divided over using student fees to install foot-washing stations on campus to make it easier for Muslim students to cleanse themselves before prayer.

“These things are surfacing more and more in many places where large communities of Muslims are coming in and trying to say this is our right,” said Antoine Mefleh, a non-Muslim who is an Arabic language instructor with the Minneapolis public schools.

His school allows Muslim students to organize an hour of prayer on Fridays – Muslims typically have Friday congregational prayers – and make up class work they miss as a result. During the rest of the week, students pray during lunch or recess.

The San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations supports the Carver program.

“Our country is transforming demographically, religiously,” said Edgar Hopida, the chapter's public relations director. “Our country has to now accommodate things that are not traditionally accounted for before.”

Carol Clipper, who is the guardian of two grandchildren enrolled in the school's Arabic program, said she believes students should be “given the freedom” to pray. Clipper is Christian, and her grandchildren are being raised in both Islam and Christianity.

“I take them to the mosque and they go to church with me,” she said.

Another parent, Tony Peregrino, whose son is not in the Arabic program, said he's OK with the Muslim students praying. What he cares about, he said, is that teachers are doing their job, and his son's education is not affected.

Courts have ruled on a series of school prayer cases over the past half-century, but legal scholars say a lack of clarity remains.

“This is an area where the law is notoriously erratic,” said Steven Smith, a constitutional law professor at the University of San Diego.

Voluntary prayers by students are protected private speech, the courts have said. That means students can say grace before a meal and have Bible study clubs on campus, and several San Diego schools do. Public school employees, however, cannot lead children in prayer on campus.

Students also can be excused for religious holidays, such as Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and Good Friday during Holy Week.

The federal Equal Access Act requires that extracurricular school clubs, religious and non-religious, be treated equally.

San Diego Unified was sued in 1993 when it denied a University City High School student's request to hold lunchtime Bible fellowship. The court found the district discriminated against religion, because it allowed secular clubs to meet during lunch.

Brent North, a lawyer retained by the district to address concerns related to the Carver program, said the district learned from the University City High case to be “careful about restricting students' right to their own private religious expression, including when it's on campus.”

The district cites Department of Education guidelines on prayer:

“Where school officials have a practice of excusing students from class on the basis of parents' requests for accommodation of non-religious needs, religiously motivated requests for excusal may not be accorded less favorable treatment.”

The midday prayer for Muslims here generally falls between 1 and 2 p.m., North said, and that is before the school day ends.

“What is unique about this request is the specificity of the religious requirement that a prayer be offered at a certain time on the clock,” he said.

North went on to say, “The district's legal obligation in response to a request that a prayer must be performed at a particular time is to treat that request the same as it would treat a student's request to receive an insulin shot at a particular time.”

Mefleh, the Minneapolis Arabic instructor, said he allows his Muslim students to pray at the end of class during the month long observance of Ramadan, Islam's holiest period.

“Some accommodation has to come from both sides,” he said. “I just tell them prayer is good. Class is good, too. Your time is precious. You have to come to an agreement with them without making a big fuss. If you want to pray, I understand, but I don't want to interrupt the class too much.”

Obviously there is a lot going on here and I don’t begrudge the author of the post for not quoting the entire news article, in fact she explicitly suggests that people read both stories completely and carefully. 

After reading the story in its entirety, it appears to me that officials at San Diego public school district and at this school are doing two things: 1) trying to avoid a lawsuit from the parents of the Muslim students, and 2) trying to make the transition from the closed charter school to Carver Elementary as painless as possible for those 100 Muslim students.  While I can understand why they made the decision that they did, I think it was a big mistake. 

Religion in public schools is an all-or-nothing thing.  You cannot allow the formation of a Christian group/club (like the Fellowship for Christian Athletes) without also allowing the formation of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Atheist groups (just to name a few).  The best policy, in my humble opinion, is to leave them all out but ultimately that is a decision for the local community to make. 

The difference with this situation though is that it is not about the use of school facilities for a club or after-school activity.  This is about setting aside time from class for prayer, specifically prayer for Muslims, and that is wrong.  I understand that Islam doctrine instructs followers to pray at specific times of the day; unfortunately that does not give them the right to completely disrupt class schedules in a public school.  Muslims are perfectly free to worship as they wish at home and students are well within their legal rights to pray to themselves while in school, but a school that sets aside specific times for prayer for one group of students is without a doubt breaking the law. 

If this precedent is allowed to stand, it will open a Pandora’s Box of demands from other religions that student’s of their faiths be afforded the same accommodations.  If a parent wants his/her child to attend a school that provides religious teachings and prayer, then by all means they are free to find a private school that will fit their needs.  It is not the job of the public education system to support religion—that is the religious community’s job.  Also, the argument that religious accommodations are basically the same as medical accommodations is laughable.  There is a world of difference between making sure that, for example, a student in a wheelchair is able to safely traverse the school campus and access facilities and giving someone time to pray. 

Public schools, like our government and nation, are, and should always, be secular in nature.  It is not the job of the government or a teacher to promote religion.  Period.    

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