The growing number of Muslim students seeking accommodations to practice their religion in public schools has stirred debate about the long-contentious issue of prayer in America’s public institutions.
But a Prince George’s County high school principal believes she has found a way to accommodate Muslim students: She gives those with parental permission and high grades a pass out of class every day to pray.
At Parkdale High School, about 10 Muslim students get out of class for about eight minutes each day to pray together on campus, said Principal Cheryl J. Logan. Another student is working hard to raise his grades so he too can join the group of students, who belong to the school’s chapter of the Muslim Students’ Association, she said.
When Muslim students began praying during the school day at Parkdale, she said, some Christian teachers got upset and told the students that “it was a Christian school.” She said she explained to the students that public schools are not religious, but are legally allowed to accommodate students to practice their religion in some ways.
“I’ve been real happy with how we’ve been able to deal with it without it becoming an issue,” Logan said.
Making accommodations for Muslim students in public schools is becoming an increasingly big issue around the country.
According to Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum who writes and speaks on religious liberty and religion in American public life, the accommodations that Logan is providing to the Muslim students are “certainly permissible” under the U.S. Constitution though probably not required.
Religious accommodations in public schools vary depending on state law, he said. Some states have passed laws that allow schools to “simply treat everyone the same way and not give exemptions or special accommodations for religious reasons.”
Asked if Logan would have to accommodate any student who asked for class time off to pray, he said that any school district “would be wise to treat everyone the same way.” Arguing that Islam requires daily prayer as a reason to accommodate Muslims and not other students of other religions is ill advised, he said.
“And that’s one of the problems with accommodation, of course,” he said. “Once you start down that road then you really are in a bind.”
Furthermore, picking and choosing which Muslim students can pray during class time may be allowable under the law, he said, but “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Last November, the Montgomery County Board of Education told leaders of the county’s growing Muslim community that it would be impossible to add an Islamic holy day to the school calendar. There are Christian and Jewish holidays on the school calendar because it was determined long ago that even if class stayed open on those days there would be too many students and teachers taking the day off anyway to operate viable classrooms.
And in some schools, female teachers and students are not allowed to wear Islamic head scarves, or have been harassed for doing so, according to the American Civil Liberties Association.