Muslim students struggle to practice faith in U.S. schools, seek accommodation for religion
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Ten-year-old Eman trembled as she raised her hand. She had a pit in her stomach, the same pit she got every day after lunch when she had to ask her teacher if she could be excused to say her afternoon prayers. Her public grade school in Columbia, Mo., did not have an official policy on religious accommodations. Sometimes her teacher let her leave, and other times she made her stay in class.
The little girl's afternoon prayers depended on the whim of an adult who didn't fully understand her religion.
Eman, now a 22-year-old sociology major at the University of Michigan, is an observant Muslim. She worships on Friday. She doesn't eat pork. She wears a veil and participates in five daily prayers prescribed by the Quran. Although it has become easier to practice her faith since she graduated from elementary school, the demands of her faith are not well-understood in American society.
There are more than 2.75 million Muslims in America, and the number is growing rapidly, according to recent Census data. One result of the growth is that public school districts around the country must grapple with questions of how to accommodate Muslim students. Issues include whether to provide places for prayer, halal food in cafeterias and scheduling around important Muslim holidays.
Although most Americans defend religious freedom as a foundational principle, many admit to being uncomfortable with Islam, according to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center. Fully 38 percent of those surveyed said they had an unfavorable opinion of Islam. This discomfort with Islam may cause some Americans to hesitate on how much accommodation they think the state should afford to orthodox faith communities.
But that isn't the only holdup on religious accommodations. Some also say providing Muslim students with prayer rooms and special food constitutes an organized attempt to push Islamic law in public settings. In fact, some of the most outspoken critics of accommodation for Muslim students are Christian groups. "What (school officials) are doing ... is to give Muslim students religious benefits that they do not give any other religion right now," Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel at the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian advocacy group, told USA Today.
But protecting the freedom of religious people to worship can't be applied selectively, argued Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
"Christians who oppose accommodations for Muslim students need to recognize that the rationale they use to oppose accommodations for Muslims students may come back to bite them," he said. The arguments used to limit the religious expression of Muslim students may ultimately be used by those who want to limit the freedoms of Christians to express their faith in public settings, he said.
Lack of understanding and apprehension about the Islamic faith "makes (educators) ill-prepared to effectively work with the differences Muslim students bring to the classroom," said Katerine Bruna, professor of multicultural education at Iowa State University.
Indeed, more than half of Americans told the Pew Research Center they did not know very much about Islam. It is unclear the extent to which the educators who consider religious accommodations are informed about the ways Islamic practices differ from those of Christians. Issues related to prayer and dress are particularly delicate for Muslims in public school settings.
For example, one of the five pillars of Islamic faith is Salat, which consists of five essential prayers said in set positions at certain times during the day. Each takes about five minutes to complete.
"These prayers provide opportunities throughout the day to reorient ourselves toward God," said Asha Patel, a lawyer and observant Muslim woman living in Salt Lake City.
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