Will Muslim Students be Allowed to Pray in School?

Christian students have been told by the ACLU and the courts that they cannot read the Bible, pray, and cannot talk or sing about Jesus Christ in the public schools.  In some instances, they’ve been punished for expressing their Christian values when they say something like homosexuality is a sin and wrong.

Now, some Pennsylvania parents in the West Shore School District are anxious to see if the school district is going to allow Muslim students the chance to pray during the school day.  At the moment, the school district has not said anything about the situation or even if they will act upon it, but there are a number of eyes waiting and watching to see if and what they do.

Attorney John Rutherford, founder of The Rutherford Institute, is also watching to see if the school district will take any action and what that action will be.  He said,

“Whether it’s a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim — if it’s required by their faith, they should be able to do it in a public school.  It just has to be evenhanded. There are certain things that certain faiths require, and the schools should respect that.

“I have run into very few teachers or especially higher-up principals and superintendents who know anything about the First Amendment.  They just heard about the so-called ‘separation of church and state.'”

In 1998, then President Bill Clinton issued a statement to educators nationwide explaining the guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools that were issued back in August of 1995.  In his statement, Clinton wrote,

“These guidelines continue to reflect two basic and equally important obligations imposed on public school officials by the First Amendment. First, schools may not forbid students acting on their own from expressing their personal religious views or beliefs solely because they are of a religious nature. Schools may not discriminate against private religious expression by students, but must instead give students the same right to engage in religious activity and discussion as they have to engage in other comparable activity. Generally, this means that students may pray in a nondisruptive manner during the school day when they are not engaged in school activities and instruction, subject to the same rules of order that apply to other student speech.

At the same time, schools may not endorse religious activity or doctrine, nor may they coerce participation in religious activity. Among other things, of course, school administrators and teachers may not organize or encourage prayer exercises in the classroom. Teachers, coaches and other school officials who act as advisors to student groups must remain mindful that they cannot engage in or lead the religious activities of students…

First, school districts should use these guidelines to revise or develop their own district wide policy regarding religious expression. In developing such a policy, school officials can engage parents, teachers, the various faith communities and the broader community in a positive dialogue to define a common ground that gives all parties the assurance that when questions do arise regarding religious expression the community is well prepared to apply these guidelines to specific cases. The Davis County School District in Farmington, Utah, is an example of a school district that has taken the affirmative step of developing such a policy.

At a time of increasing religious diversity in our country such a proactive step can help school districts create a framework of civility that reaffirms and strengthens the community consensus regarding religious liberty. School districts that do not make the effort to develop their own policy may find themselves unprepared for the intensity of the debate that can engage a community when positions harden around a live controversy involving religious expression in public schools.

Second, I encourage principals and administrators to take the additional step of making sure that teachers, so often on the front line of any dispute regarding religious expression, are fully informed about the guidelines. The Gwinnett County School system in Georgia, for example, begins every school year with workshops for teachers that include the distribution of these presidential guidelines. Our nation’s schools of education can also do their part by ensuring that prospective teachers are knowledgeable about religious expression in the classroom.

Third, I encourage schools to actively take steps to inform parents and students about religious expression in school using these guidelines. The Carter County School District in Elizabethton, Tennessee, included the subject of religious expression in a character education program that it developed in the fall of 1997. This effort included sending home to every parent a copy of the “Parent’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools.”

Help is available for those school districts that seek to develop policies on religious expression. I have enclosed a list of associations and groups that can provide information to school districts and parents who seek to learn more about religious expression in our nation’s public schools.

In addition, citizens can turn to the U.S. Department of Education web site  for information about the guidelines and other activities of the Department that support the growing effort of educators and religious communities to support the education of our nation’s children.

Finally, I encourage teachers and principals to see the First Amendment as something more than a piece of dry, old parchment locked away in the national attic gathering dust. It is a vital living principle, a call to action, and a demand that each generation reaffirm its connection to the basic idea that is America — that we are a free people who protect our freedoms by respecting the freedom of others who differ from us.”

According to my information, these guidelines have never been rescinded or altered and are still in effect.  And if you read the full guidelines, you have to wonder why so many schools are making rulings that violate them.

But the question at hand is what is the West Shore School District going to do about their Muslim students whose religion requires them to pray multiple times a time?  And if they do make allow the Muslim student to pray at school, will they allow students of other religions, especially Christians, to pray during school?