Public schools grapple with Muslim prayer

A San Diego school adjusts its schedule to accommodate Muslim worship.

When afternoon recess comes at an elementary school on the outskirts of San Diego, some students rush out for a quick game of hopscotch, while others gather in a room for Muslim worship. Like a growing number of school districts around the country, San Diego's is changing its ways to meet the needs of its Islamic students. Here, a controversy with constitutional overtones erupted: In accommodating Muslim students, is the school unfairly promoting religion?

The school's policy "presumes that Christians are less religious and less inspired to worship and praise the Lord and come together," says Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute. He is asking the school district to set up special rooms where Christians can pray, too.

This outcry, and others like it from conservative commentators and attorneys, suggest that the whole matter may land in court. Potentially at issue is to what extent actions taken by a public school to accommodate special religious needs of some students might require similar allowances for other students.

For now, about 100 students in the Arabic language program at Carver Elementary School are finishing their first year under a daily schedule that gives them a 15-minute recess period in the afternoon, about an hour after lunch. Many of the students are Muslim and transferred from an Arabic-language charter school that folded. Carver Elementary revised its schedule so the students would have the option to pray at the specific times ordained by their religion, says attorney Brent North, who represents the school district. A teacher is present to watch the praying children but cannot lead or take part in the observance.

A question of faith?

Five daily prayers are "part of our fundamental faith," explains Akram Shami, a retired bank security manager who volunteers at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles. "We pray to God, we worship God, and we recite verses from the Koran." One prayer is typically performed at specific times around noon or 1 p.m., depending on the time of year, although Muslims differ on the mandated prayer times.

At some public schools, students leave class momentarily or wait to pray until they get home. Mr. Shami says his faith allows prayers to be combined at a later time if necessary.

The San Diego district took special action regarding the timing of recess because "the Muslim faith requires specificity of prayer obligations ... that most other religions do not," Mr. North says. He denies reports that a new recess was added specifically to address the religious needs of the Muslim students.

"As a constitutional law attorney, I don't care whether kids do or don't pray in schools. I don't care to whom or how they pray," North says. But he adds that he does have to make sure that religious requests are treated in a neutral way.

The 133,000-student school district knows more than most about the hazards of making the wrong decision. In 1993, a federal court ordered the district to allow students to engage in religious activities during lunchtime.

The First Amendment seeks to balance an individual's right to practice one's religion without undue government interference while at the same time barring the government from endorsing or favoring any particular faith. In addition, in 2000, Congress approved the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which requires religious accommodations in many instances.

Echoes around the nation

Other school districts have faced dilemmas as the number of Muslims in the US has grown. In 2005, a suburban Dallas school district allowed Muslim students to leave class to pray after it was confronted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a bipartisan organization. "Teachers panic whenever they hear the word religion," says fund president Kevin "Seamus" Hasson, and some "think their job is to protect kids from secondhand faith."

Schools elsewhere in the country have made decisions quietly, such as allowing Muslim students to avoid strenuous exercise while they're fasting. In Dearborn, Mich., schools offer students the option of eating hot dogs and chicken nuggets made with meat that has been slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law. The Dearborn district, where at least 1 in 3 students is of Middle Eastern descent – some of which are Muslim – also schedules two days off during the Islamic holiday of Ramadan.

That may sound unusual, "but most Americans don't think about the fact that schools naturally accommodate Christians," says Lisa Soronen, an attorney with the National School Boards Association. "There's no school on Sunday, and we get days off for most of the major Christian holidays."

Ms. Soronen, who's gotten more questions about Islam and schools over the past two or three years, said it's unclear how courts might react to Muslim prayer rooms, because judges haven't addressed that particular issue.

Left-leaning groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have remained silent so far on the San Diego situation, suggesting that any legal action may come from the right. "The line is when the government comes in and says, 'We really think you ought to pray,' " says Mr. Hasson.

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