Muslims’ needs roiling schools

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Public schools increasingly are being forced to grapple with how to accommodate Muslim students’ needs, during Ramadan and throughout the school year, and some cases have spurred community debate.

“We’re getting a lot of those inquiries right now because it’s sort of … the new issue they’re contending with,” said Tom Hutton, a lawyer with the National School Boards Association, which provides school officials with broad guidance on such topics occasionally.

Generally, he said, “schools try to bend over backwards to accommodate religious needs.”

Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States, according to a 2002 State Department publication, so it isn’t surprising that schools are fielding more special requests.

Mr. Hutton said observance of the holy month of Ramadan is usually “easy” for schools to accommodate and may include Muslim children being excused from gym class or assigned different activities if they are fasting. Fasting during Ramadan usually begins in earnest when a child turns 12 or 13 years old, aides at Islamic groups said.

Other accommodations, some during Ramadan and some throughout the rest of the school year, could include rooms where students can go during lunch if they’re fasting; alternatives to pork on the school-lunch menu; areas for students to go to perform the required daily prayers; and requests either to be excused from school for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that ends Ramadan, or to make the day a school holiday, the aides said.

But conservative and religious groups complain that Christian students often are denied such leeway.

“There are public schools throughout the country that — under the guise of diversity or multiculturalism — are allowing Islamic programs in schools that would not be allowed for Christians,” said Richard Thompson, president of Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center. “If you’re going to do it for the Muslim students, that’s fine, but you’d better do it for the Christians.”

A San Diego elementary school came under fire last year when it gave Muslim students a break to pray in the classroom, and a substitute teacher claimed that a school aide participated, the San Diego Union Tribune reported. Religious and civil rights groups began investigating it.

“This was a double standard that was utilized by the school because under no circumstance would the school allow Christian students to gather separately, during class time, to engage in Christian prayer,” Mr. Thompson said.

The situation was resolved by allowing the students to pray during lunch, said those involved in the matter.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that usually on questions of accommodations for Muslims, “parents and school administrators work out these things in an amicable way.”

The University of Michigan at Dearborn came under criticism this summer for planning to install foot baths in two restrooms to make it easier for Muslim students to cleanse before their daily prayers. The request was made by the Muslim Student Association, which has a task force aimed at securing more accommodations for Muslim college students. Critics said it was an establishment of religion.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, said schools face a “balancing act” and a “patchwork” of laws and court decisions on public school religious accommodations. As a general rule, he said, “schools should try to accommodate” as long as it’s reasonable and doesn’t interfere with the mission of educating students. He agreed that all religious groups must be treated the same.

Jeremy Gunn, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, warned that religious accommodations shouldn’t include purchasing any religious objects for students or promoting religion. He also said schools are set up to fit Jewish and Christian worship by not operating on Saturdays and Sundays and on major Christian holidays.

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