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
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.
Andaleeb Rahman is a student at the University of Virginia studying biochemistry and psychology. An observant Muslim, he attended public primary and secondary schools. "I was the only Muslim at my (elementary) school," he said.
His parents worried that asking the school for a special accommodation for their son to pray would be disruptive and put an extra burden on his teachers. "We decided as a family that I would not pray when I was at school," he said. "After school I would rush home and try to say make-up prayers."
Rahman is not resentful that he wasn't able to pray when he was in public school, but he hopes his own children don't have to make the same choice he did. Asha Patel agrees. "I want my child to have a strong sense of their Islamic identity," and prayer is part of that, she said.
Prayer is not the only potential conflict for Muslim students. Some women wear veils, a practice derived from teachings of the Prophet Mohammad about modesty.
Although Muslim scholars debate whether this instruction applies to all Muslim women, many believers consider it a symbol of devotion. "The veil is my sacred garment," said Asha Patel. "Some religious people wear their (sacred clothing) on the inside, I wear mine on the outside," she said.
The religious significance of Kirin Nabis veil was not clear to teachers and administrators at Murray High School. Nabi, an observant Muslim who grew up in Murray had to explain to administrators how her veil jived with their no hats policy. I just had to reassure them that this was my right and it wouldn't be on one day and off the next, as a hat would, she said.
Eventually the school relented, allowing her to wear her headscarf to school, but the experience was difficult for the young Nabi. "School can be a hostile environment," she said. "I dealt with challenges that I don't want my kids to face." This one reason she sends her school-age daughter to a private Islamic school in West Valley City. "It is a safe place where she can develop a sense of her religious identity," said Nabi.
The First Amendment's two religion clauses — the guarantee of free exercise of religion and the prohibition on government establishment of religion — have proved difficult for some school officials to reconcile.
While the government is required to educate students in a climate of religious neutrality, students have the right to freely exercise their own religion, said Charlie Russo, a professor of law at the University of Dayton in Ohio. But students' ability to perform religiously prescribed actions can be complicated by school policy and state laws.
Generally, schools are required to accommodate students' religious beliefs unless there is a compelling reason not to. This precedent was set, in part, by a decision handed down by the 5th Circuit Court. A 7-year-old Native American boy was disciplined for wearing his hair in two long braids to school. He argued the braids were part of his religious and cultural identity; the school argued the braids presented safety and hygiene hazards. The court found in favor of the boy, arguing that in this case, the school did not have a compelling reason to limit expression.
Sometimes schools have other compelling reasons to enforce dress codes, such as curbing gang activity.
But dress codes can be problematic if they limit students' First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression. In states where additional protections for religious expression are not expressly written into the law, students could be asked to remove sacred head coverings, meaning that Muslim women could be asked to take off their veils in school. Although this issue has not come before the court, as the number of Muslim immigrants to the United States increases, some observers believe it ultimately will. "If the school can show there is a legitimate risk, the courts will restrict students' expression of religious belief," said Goodrich.
Some argue that accommodations for Muslim students in public school amount to preferential treatment by the state. "If you start carving out the time in the school day that you would not do but for the need to let students pray, then it begins to look like you are trying to assist religion," said David Blair-Loy, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Deigo. Daniel Pipes, founder of the conservative Middle East Forum takes things a step further. "The goal of Islamists is the application of Islamic law," he said. Requests for accommodation are part of a movement to force the public to acquiesce to Islamic law, he argued.
Even some Muslims groups have concerns about the implications of accommodations. "Unusual accommodations for one faith at the cost of everybody else doesn't fall on the side of pluralism," said Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of Phoenix-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which promotes separation of mosque and state.
Paradoxically, some of the most vocal critics of accommodations for Muslims are Christians who, in other cases, might argue for religious accommodation. "Muslims and Islamic organizations in America take advantage of our ... system and are waging a 'Stealth Jihad' within our borders," according to the website of the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, a Christian advocacy group.
The camel's nose
Definitions of religious tolerance have evolved over time. As Justice John Paul Stevens argued in a 1985 opinion: "At one time it was thought that this right (to practice one's own creed) merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-christian faith such as Mohammedanism or Judaism … But when the underlying principle has been examined … the court has unambiguously concluded that … the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all."
"Muslims are an easy target," said Shahid Malik, a member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. Differences in religious worship, dress and diet set them apart in obvious ways from mainstream society.
Goodrich worries that Christians students could be next. Shutting down accommodations for Muslim students is the proverbial "camel's nose under the tent," he said: where the nose goes, the body follows. "The justifications that are used to shut down accommodations for Muslims will be used to shut down accommodations for other groups," he said.
One place this plays out is in curriculum. When Kirin Nabi was a student, her Spanish teacher asked the students to sing Christmas carols as part of their final assignment. Kirin, an observant Muslim, took exception with the task, arguing it violated her religious values. "I am not against learning about Christmas," she said. "I just don't want to celebrate it."
"There are things I could do that would meet the educational objectives of the assignment without compromising my beliefs," she reasoned.
When considering the merits of a Muslim student's request for exemptions or accommodations for activities that violate their religious beliefs, said George W. Dent, a professor at Case Western Reserve University Law School, educators should consider an analogous situation involving Christian students. Conservative parents would be enraged if their child was forced to read Hustler magazine to complete the requirements of an English assignment, he argued.
"In cases involving offensive classroom material, children are expected to pay attention to and absorb teaching that offends their religious sensitivities," he said. The reality is that students who are forcefully exposed to concepts that are "hostile to their religious faith experience coercion to renounce their faith," said Dent in an article the University's law review.
Corrections made Feb. 27, 2012.