Religious Accommodation or Creeping Sharia? - updated 1/6/2014

Sheila Musaji

Posted Jan 6, 2014      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Religious Accommodation or Creeping Sharia?

by Sheila Musaji

When an Australian hospital decided to remove symbols of any particular faith from the chapel where people of many different faiths come to pray except during religious service of any particular faith - Robert Spencer called that “dhimmitude”.  His partner, Pamela Geller has called requests for religious accommodation for Muslim students “imposing Sharia”.  In fact, when a Michigan high school football team held practices after the fast of Ramadan opened because most of the schools students were Muslim, she called that “imposing Islam on our secular society”.

Pamela Geller published an article Imposing Islam in Your Public School in Six Easy Steps.  She opens with Check out this “instruction sheet” to Muslims on how to islamicize their public schools. There is no separation of mosque and state—mosque is state in Islam.  If this guide shows us anything, it’s what idiots they take us for. This is, of course, an outrage. None of this should be introduced into the public school. If this is what Muslim parents want, they should send their children to madrassah. 

What is it that she found so alarming and saw as “imposing Islam”?  It is a simple guide for Muslim parents as to how to approach their child’s school to ask for religious accommodation for their own child - for example to have the day off school for a religious holiday, or to be excused from some strenuous activity during Ramadan.  And, what is the first thing that this guide tells parents - first know the law - “Knowing what laws and regulations govern the issue of religious accommodation is crucial before attempting to reach the right authorities. It is also important to understand what is defined as a “reasonable limit” on religious freedom.”

Good advice for all parents.  Actually, the issue of requesting religious accommodation comes up for members of many religious groups, not just Muslims.  And “reasonable accommodation” is a principle that is honored under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.  The Anti Defamation League (ADL) also produces such a guide called Religion in the Public Schools  Geller and many other bigots who call themselves “patriots” need to do a remedial course in the Constitution.

In 2010, a radio personality, Victoria Taft said in a blog post that Rigler Elementary School in Portland gave a prayer room, rugs, and special treatment to Muslim students.  PolitiFact debunked the entire story here, and calls this report not only baseless, but rates it “pants on fire”.  They noted that

In her missive, Taft writes that “Muslim students at Portland’s Rigler Elementary School are given their own school provided prayer room, prayer rugs, helpfully stored in the prayer room by the school, and let out of class five times a day to pray to Allah. Did I mention this is during school hours?”

If this sounds a little dubious, she backs it up in the Dec. 27, 2010, post: “School officials AND the PPS spokesman confirmed before I went on the air with this earlier this month.”

There’s a lot more in her post, but she keeps coming back to the idea that Muslim students are getting exceptional treatment. Here’s another sentence along those lines: “The school stores the Muslim prayer rugs for the students in a special room and they roll them all out for the kids five times a day.”  So is any of this true?

After a lengthy take down of all the false statements the article says

So, we asked, how did any of this crop up in the first place?

Well, Shelby said, four years ago, two brothers at Rigler asked for permission to pray at lunch during Ramadan, an Islamic holy month. The students were allowed to do so in an empty office. The school, he said, did not convert the office to a prayer room; the two were simply to pray in private. The students prayed just once a day and no rugs were provided.

Shelby then pointed us to a couple of memos from Portland Public Schools’ general counsel Jollee Faber Patterson. One of the memos deals with religious instruction in school and makes clear that teachers should neither encourage nor discourage religious expression—no matter the faith.

In another memo, this one dealing specifically with special requests during Ramadan, Patterson suggests that schools “should accommodate reasonable requests.” This, she writes, would include giving students access to a quiet place to pray and excusing students from physical education should they be fasting during the day (as is custom during Ramadan).

Shelby says Portland Public Schools has made allowances for children of other faiths as well. At one elementary school, Christian students are allowed to miss class in order to participate in religious studies off campus. A few years back, Wilson High School rescheduled a graduation ceremony to accommodate Jewish students who were observing Shabbat. Other schools keep the Sabbath in mind when scheduling Friday night and weekend activities, Shelby said.  “It’s all over the board, and we try to accommodate our kids as best we can,” Shelby said.


Recently, when an organization of private schools called TAPPS refused a Muslim schools application to join, Brigitte Gabriel’s ACT For America, Houston Chapter published an article titled Well, good! Texas School system stops Islam getting a nose under the tent.

Here is a report from The Times of Israel about another incident involving TAPPS and a Jewish school:

The Robert M. Beren Academy of Houston, an Orthodox Jewish high school, fielding a superb basketball team, had battled its way to the semi-finals of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS). Ironically, although TAPPS was a sports league of private and religious schools, the association was determined not to honor any Sabbath except the Christian Sunday. Moreover, the semi-final playoffs were deliberately scheduled for March 2, a Friday night, which meant that Orthodox Jewish students could not participate. TAPPS angrily and steadfastly denied all requests for accommodation for Beren’s Jewish kids, refusing to move the game up just a few hours even though Covenant, the team Beren was scheduled to play, agreed to the proposed revised game time. That triggered a legal challenge in federal court which quickly led to TAPPS reversing its decision and rescheduling the Friday night game to early Friday afternoon in time for the Beren team to play.

Reasonable religious accommodation in the public sphere has existed for a very long time in the United States.  Here are just a few examples:

A federal judge ruled that the Indiana Department of Correction was violating the law by not offering kosher meals to prison inmates whose religious beliefs require it.  Indiana then approved serving Kosher meals to Jewish prisoners.

British Airways was challenged for stopping a Jewish worker from observing sabbath by making him work Saturdays

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department is not only willing to make the appropriate religious accommodation for Sikhs, allowing their beards and turbans, but has actively encouraged Sikh Americans to become officers.

An Orthodox Jewish police detective was awarded a settlement of $350,000 from the Las Vegas police department to settle a lawsuit after he was prohibited from having a beard and wearing a yarmulke. 

A Jewish law student taking the Colorado bar exam discovered that the first day of the test was scheduled on Tisha B’av, a traditional day of observance and fasting, she asked the Board of Bar Examiners for an alternate test date.  She ultimately won this accommodation.

A unanimous ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court backed a Jewish only inheritance clause in the will of a Jewish couple.  The court said that they were within their rights to disinherit any grandchildren who married outside the faith. 

The state Corrections Department in Montpelier, Vermont agreed to pay $25,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a Jewish former inmate who said he was denied traditional food including matzoh at Passover and was blocked from observing the holidays of his faith. 

Simran Preet Singh Lamba, a Sikh, became the first man in over 30 years to be allowed to wear his religiously mandated turban, beard and hear while serving in the Army.

Students at an Orthodox Jewish day school filed a religious discrimination complaint when the National High School Mock Trial was scheduled to be held on a Saturday.

A student at a Portland public school requested that the school make accommodations for students unable to attend finals on those days and that they consider Jewish holidays when planning future school year calendars.


Separation of Church and State is an important principle that must be defended.  However, requesting reasonable religious accommodation does not violate that separation.  The ADL publishes a First Amendment primer that includes this section on actual violations in public schools:

Blatant violations of church-state separation continue to take place in our public schools.  Among the more recent such violations have been the following:

In Alabama, a family of Jewish children was repeatedly harassed after complaining about the promotion of Christian beliefs in their public schools. One of the students was forced to write an essay on “Why Jesus Loves Me.” At a mandatory school assembly, a Christian minister condemned to hell all people who did not believe in Jesus Christ.

Elsewhere in Alabama, officials in the DeKalb County school system blatantly disobeyed a district court ruling that forbade religious activity in school such as the broadcast of Christian prayers over the school public address system and the distribution of Gideon Bibles on school property. The court has now been forced to issue an injunction to compel the schools to abide by its earlier ruling.

A Jewish student at a public school in Utah was required to sing religious songs and participate in Mormon religious worship activities as part of a choir class. After she voiced objections to these practices, the student was humiliated in class by the teacher and became the target of anti-Semitic harassment by her classmates.

Some otherwise well-intentioned advocates for school reform are promoting initiatives that would channel public funds to schools that engage in religious indoctrination. In their various forms—“vouchers,” “school choice,” “hope and opportunity scholarships”—these programs would force Americans to do something contrary to our very notion of democracy: to pay taxes to support the propagation of religious dogma.

And this section on violations in the public sphere:

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black best expressed the purpose and function of the Establishment Clause when he said that it rests “on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.” Some Americans reject this dictum, promoting the idea that the government should endorse the religious values of certain members of the community to the exclusion of others. In fact, such violations of the separation of church and state take place with disturbing frequency in American government, at local, state and Federal levels. Recent incidents include the following:

An Alabama judge regularly opens his court sessions with a Christian prayer. Further, he has refused to remove a plaque containing the Ten Commandments from his courtroom wall. Alabama Governor Fob James has threatened to call in the Alabama National Guard to prevent the plaque’s removal.

Local municipalities have erected nativity scenes, crosses, menorahs and other religious symbols to the exclusion of those of other faiths.
The Board of Aldermen of a Connecticut city has opened its sessions with a prayer that beseeches citizens to “elect Christian men and women to office so that those who serve will be accountable . . . to the teachings of Jesus Christ . . . .”

A variety of religious groups are demanding that their faith-based social service programs receive public funding although these programs engage in aggressive proselytizing and religious indoctrination.

On the “National Day of Prayer,” local authorities acting in their official capacities have led citizens in sectarian prayer.

These are the sorts of incidents that all who are genuinely concerned about separation of church and state, and religious freedom should be concerned about.  As citizens of a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-racial society, we must be concerned with protecting the rights of all citizens.  When the rights of any minority are threatened, the rights of the majority are also threatened.

UPDATE 12/23/2013

The British department store Marks and Spencer has said that its Muslim staff do not have to sell pork or alcohol to customers.  A Telegraph article reporting on this noted that ”...  The policy applies throughout its 700-plus stores. The spokesman said the policy of tolerance applied to other religions, so, for example, Christians who did not want to work on Sundays and religious Jews who chose not to work on Saturdays would also be excused. “This is something we decide on a case-by-case basis,” the spokesman added. ....  The article discusses other religious accommodations made by this chain, and several others.

Of course, Pamela Geller and other haters could not let this innocuous story pass without adding their particular slant.  According to Geller this is Submission.  Geller’s article manages to work in terms like “Islamic supremacism”, “sharia”, “outrageous, supremacist demands”, etc.  And, she says that Jews have never made such “demands”. 

According to the Jewish Chronicle Online Marks & Spencer say Jewish staff do not have to handle pork.  Here are the key points from this article:

...  A customer was reported in the Sunday Telegraph as saying: “I had one bottle of champagne, and the lady, who was wearing a headscarf, was very apologetic but said she could not serve me.”  M&S later confirmed that this was company policy. It said: “We recognise that some of our employees practise religions that restrict the food or drink they can handle, or that mean they cannot work at certain times.  “M&S promotes an environment free from discrimination and so, where specific requests are made, we will always make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them.”  Asked by the JC if this extended to Jewish workers who did not wish to sell pig products or seafood, a spokesman confirmed that it was the case.  The spokesman said that, with regard to staff who did not wish to sell meat and milk together, a decision would be made “on a case-by-case basis”. ...

According to Yeshiva World: “... The chain founded by Polish-Jewish refugee Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer in the late 19th century, confirmed that, in the same way a Muslim member of staff could refuse to handle pork and alcohol, a Jewish employee could decline to sell pork sausages, bacon rashers and sea-food, as well as opt not to work on Shabbos. ...”

No one made any “demands”, some employees have made requests based on their particular religious beliefs, and some of those requests have been accommodated.  End of the actual story.  All the rest of the hoopla over this is another story that is not based on reality, but on the imagination of fevered Islamophobic minds.

UPDATE 1/6/2014

I was informed that on the same date I posted the last update, I missed the fact that Pamela Geller’s partner in hate, Robert Spencer, also posted an article Hamas-linked CAIR cries “Islamophobia” over Marks & Spencer Sharia checkout lanes policy

The title itself includes Spencer’s incorrect main thesis - that CAIR thinks Marks & Spencer’s policy (or it’s apology for the policy) is Islamophobic.  As the British say, “rubbish”!  The text of the tweet from CAIR-National that Spencer uses in his failed attempt to get even more mileage from this non-story reads “The furore over M&S’s Muslim staff policy shows that Islamophobia is a problem…  What they are calling attention to is the Islamophobic response to this policy. 


American Muslims must defend the Constitution of the United States, Sheila Musaji
The Constitution, Religious Accommodation, and Public Schools, Sheila Musaji (with TAM article collection)
Debunking The ‘War On Christianity’: The Dangers Of Out-Of-Control Spin, Barry Lynn (with TAM article collection)
Does the First Amendment Apply to Prisoners?, Sheila Musaji
In Murfreesboro, Tennessee Islamophobia Trumps the U.S. Constitution, Sheila Musaji

Originally published April 14, 2012