The Constitution, Religious Accommodation, and Public Schools - update 6/10/13

The Constitution, Religious Accommodation, and Public Schools

by Sheila Musaji

Pamela Geller has posted Islamic Supremacism in Action: Hamas-CAIR meets Public School officials demanding more Islamic prayer accommodation.  Geller says:  “They are relentless.  Whatever your sentiments—this. is. wrong. And it’s a violation of the establishment clause. Where is the separation of mosque and state? In Muslim countries, mosque is state. But this is America.”

All of this because some parents in Melvindale Public Schools want similar accomodations for students that are already in place for Dearborn (and other) public schools.  The article that set off this particular rant by Geller notes:  “Dearborn Public Schools has implemented a policy which fully accommodates student-led prayer in all the schools, as well as unexcused absences for students who leave early on Fridays for Jumu’ah prayers.”

In the article Through the Looking Glass: Promoting Islam in the Public Schools?, I said: “I also find it “ominous” that any religion should be promoted in the public schools. I don’t want any proselytizing for any religion in the public schools. But, I do want to see education about religions.  The First Amendment Establishment Clause says the government cannot promote, teach, or “establish” religion in any way. Since the government runs public schools, these institutions cannot promote religion either. The First Amendment Free Exercise Clause says the government cannot prohibit or penalize your religious practice, your “free exercise” of religion. It protects your right to practice a religion or to be non-religious. The Constitutions of most states have similar provisions and also guarantee the “free exercise” of religion, and prohibits laws from giving “preference” to any one denomination.”

A recent lawsuit against a North Carolina County points to one aspect of the difference between state establishment of religion and free-exercise of religion.  Lawmakers regularly pray in ways that prompted suit against county

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Rowan County Board of Commissioners for their use of sectarian [explicitly Christian] prayers to open their meetings.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, accuses the board of violating the First Amendment provision ordaining the separation of church and state by routinely praying to Jesus Christ to start their meetings, The Associated Press reports. Forsyth County lost a similar case last year when the ACLU challenged that board’s use of sectarian prayers to open meetings.  It’s worth noting, the ACLU warned the legislature to keep prayers at the General Assembly non-sectarian in 2012.

... The Fourth Circuit has not banned all prayers before government proceedings. The court wrote in the Forsyth County case:

“In sum, invocations at the start of legislative sessions can solemnize those occasions; encourage participants to act on their noblest instincts; and foster the humility that recognition of a higher hand in human affairs can bring. There is a clear line of precedent not only upholding the practice of legislative prayer, but acknowledging the ways in which it can bring together citizens of all backgrounds and encourage them to participate in the workings of their government.”

But it added that prayers favoring one religion over another were unconstitutional. To that point, the court wrote:

“To plant sectarian prayers at the heart of local government is a prescription for religious discord. ...where prayer in public fora is concerned, the deep beliefs of the speaker afford only more reason to respect the profound convictions of the listener. Free religious exercise posits broad religious tolerance.”

The Religious Tolerance Organization has a useful resource with a great deal of information specifically on this topic of prayer in public schools Religion and prayer in U.S. public schools, libraries, etc.  They include Constitutional issues, court cases, etc.

As to the case of students praying in school (student initiated and led, and not required by the school), that right is protected by the Constitution.  Muslim students have a unique situation in that their religious belief requires them to pray at specific times, and one of those prayers falls during school hours. 

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley in June of 1998 stated the principles involved clearly:  “Public schools can neither foster religion nor preclude it. Our public schools must treat religion with fairness and respect and vigorously protect religious expression as well as the freedom of conscience of all other students. In so doing our public schools reaffirm the First Amendment and enrich the lives of their students”**

As Americans United notes in Prayer and the public schools:

... It is important to remember that in these decisions the Supreme Court did not “remove prayer from public schools.” The court removed only government-sponsored worship. Public school students have always had the right to pray on their own as class schedules permit.
... Nothing in the 1962 or 1963 rulings makes it unlawful for public school students to pray or read the Bible (or any other religious book) on a voluntary basis during their free time. Later decisions have made this even clearer. In 1990, the high court ruled specifically that high school students may form clubs that meet during “non-instructional” time to pray, read religious texts or discuss religious topics if other student groups are allowed to meet.

The high court has also made it clear, time and again, that objective studyabout religion in public schools is legal and appropriate. Many public schools offer courses in comparative religion, the Bible as literature or the role of religion in world and U.S. history. As long as the approach is objective, balanced and non-devotional, these classes present no constitutional problem.

In short, a public school’s approach to religion must have a legitimate educational purpose, not a devotional one. Public schools should not be in the business of preaching to students or trying to persuade them to adopt certain religious beliefs. Parents, not school officials, are responsible for overseeing a young person’s religious upbringing. This is not a controversial principle. In fact, most parents would demand these basic rights.

As to religious accommodation in public schools,  requests by parents for religious accommodation within Constitutional guidelines are not uncommon at all.  For example:  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.  These requests are usually honored.

The TAM article Religious Accommodation or Creeping Sharia? notes:

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.

As Bob Smietana notes Schools make room for religion:

...  Students can pray, talk about their faith, pass out literature and miss school on religious holidays. But they can’t disrupt the school day or infringe on the rights of other students.

Still, one Middle Tennessee school board ignited controversy recently when Muslim students were granted religious accommodations.  Angry residents in Murfreesboro showed up at a Rutherford County school board meeting to complain that Muslim students were getting special treatment from the schools.  School officials say their policies require them to treat all faiths equally.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said schools can limit the time and place of religious expression, but they cannot ban it.  “Public schools cannot prevent students from expressing religious faith while on school property,” she said.

School leaders are not allowed to lead prayers or endorse any religious viewpoint, Weinberg said. The ACLU-TN has sued several local school boards over this issue in the past.  But students do not face the same restrictions.

In Middle Tennessee, thousands of public school students attend Christian clubs at schools or annual prayer events, such as See You at the Pole, where students gather outside around the school’s flag pole to pray and sing.

Jehovah’s Witnesses skip pledging allegiance to the flag or singing patriotic songs.

Muslim students gather for prayer in an empty classroom or go to the library instead of lunch during Ramadan.

Jewish students and students of other faiths take off their holy days as excused absences. ...

All students must be treated equally.  All Americans, including Muslims, are protected by the Constitution.  In the article In Murfreesboro, Tennessee Islamophobia Trumps the U.S. Constitution about the uproar over accommodating a Muslim students request to pray at school, I noted:

To summarize the position of the Islamophobes, and those in Murfreesboro that they have influenced: One Muslim student is allowed to pray in an empty room during lunch break.  Christian students already hold lunch Bible study, and have a Christian club at the same school.  The Muslim students should be forced to “assimilate to Christian culture” and take part in Christian prayer.  Accommodating the Christian students is reasonable because this is a “Christian country”, accommodating the Muslim students is a dangerous accommodation to “creeping Sharia”, and will lead ultimately to a Muslim takeover of “our country”.  If Muslims ask to have their Constitutional rights honored the same as everyone else’s, they are “demanding special treatment”.  Islam is not a religion like Christianity, and therefore the Constitution doesn’t apply to Muslims.  We have no problem with Muslims, we have a problem with Islam.

They are wrong on every count!

And Pamela Geller is wrong to claim that a request for reasonable religious accommodation is a “violation of the establishment clause”, or an attempt to break the separation of church/mosque/synagogue and the state.  If she had any concern about the Constitution, she would not be attempting to limit the Constitutional rights of only one segment of “we the people”.  The only thing I agree with Geller about is that “this is America”.  Yes, it is, and American Muslims are equally protected by the Constitution.

UPDATE 6/10/2013

This week Pamela Geller published Hamas-CAIR Demands (and Gets) Muslim prayers in public school but attacks voluntary, off-site Bible lessons in which she says: ” This is how it works under Islam—Muslim supremacism above all. Hamas-CAIR is making these outrageous demands across the coutnry [sic], imposing Islam on the secular marketplace.”  This was her introduction to an EAG News article of the same title.

Both Geller’s and EAG News’ titles directly contradict the actual information given in what they themselves have published:

Two stories from Michigan tell the tale.

From a CAIR press release:The Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI) said today that a Detroit-area school district has apologized for handing out permission slips for Bible study classes to elementary school students.CAIR-MI sent a letter to Roseville Public Schools after receiving a complaint from two parents of children who attend Huron Park Elementary School about distribution by teachers of permission slips for the Bible classes at a local Baptist church.CAIR Executive Director Dawus Walid wrote in a letter to the school district, “School staff and teachers are not to serve as advocates for one particular religion or congregation within a religion by passing out slips inviting parents to give permission for their children to attend religious instruction. ”

But that’s precisely what CAIR sought in the nearby Dearborn district.

The Arab American News reported that CAIR staff “recently met with Dearborn Public Schools Superintendent Brian Whiston to discuss concerns from some parents regarding prayer accommodations in Dearborn Public Schools.

“Dearborn Public Schools has implemented a policy which fully accommodates student-led prayer in all the schools, as well as unexcused absences for students who leave early on Fridays for Jumu’ah prayers. CAIR-MI is currently in discussion with Melvindale Public Schools to get similar accommodations for students that are now in place for Dearborn Public Schools.”

So Muslims can conduct religious activities within a public school, but Christians can’t go off-site to receive voluntary Bible lessons? What’s wrong with this picture?

Is political correctness accommodating such hypocrisy?

This is ludicrous.  CAIR is objecting, not to off-site Bible lessons, but to distribution by teachers of materials regarding such Bible lessons.  This is clearly a violation of the separation of church and state.  If students themselves or their parents request time for off-site religious education, there is no problem.  If a student or their parents requests time for a Bible study class, that is not a problem.  Student led prayer (no matter what the religion) is not a problem.  It is a problem when authorities like teachers take the lead.


101 Tools for Tolerance
A Teachers Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, First Amendment Center,
A Parents Guide to Religion in the Public Schools,
A Teachers Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, from the Freedom Forum,
Accommodating Muslims in the Public Schools: Where to Draw the Line
Accommodating Muslim Students’ Needs in Public Schools, Charles Haynes
American Muslims must defend the Constitution of the United States, Sheila Musaji
Controversy Over Harassment, Bullying and Free Expression Guidelines, Sheila Musaji
Creationism in schools and
Does the First Amendment Apply to Prisoners?, Sheila Musaji
Does Rep. Andre Carson Really Want to Turn Public Schools Into Madrassas?, Sheila Musaji
Do’s and Dont’s of Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools,’s.htm
Educating about Islam (TAM article collection)
Evolution / ID / creationism - conflicts in U.S. public schools
Geller & Spencer Discover Non-Existent Arabic Jihad Plot, Sheila Musaji (Arabic classes in public schools)
In Murfreesboro, Tennessee Islamophobia Trumps the U.S. Constitution, Sheila Musaji
Lawmakers regularly pray in ways that prompted suit against county, Mark Binker
Maine Proposes Accommodation of Native American Religious Practices In Prisons
PEW Forum on Religion in Public Life has a study Religion in Prisons
Position Statements on Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools,
Prayer And The Public Schools: Religion, Education & Your Rights
Primer on the First Amendment & Religious Freedom, ADL
Public Schools and Religious Communities, A First Amendment Guide,
Reconciling the Rights of Sikh Prisoners
Religion and prayer in U.S. public schools, libraries, etc.
Religion and Public Schools
Religion in the Public School Curriculum, from the Freedom Forum,
Religion in the Public Schools: A Statement on Current Law
Religious Accommodation or Creeping Sharia?, Sheila Musaji
Religious Holidays in the Public Schools
Religious Liberty in Public Schools
Religious Literacy: Americans Don’t Know Much About Religion
Schools make room for religion, Bob Smietana
Robert Spencer finds swear words more offensive than attack on Constitution, Sheila Musaji (NC attempt to est. state religion)
Spelling Bee for Muslim schools provokes Islamophobic Hate Fest, Sheila Musaji
Teachers Guide to Religion in the Public Schools
Teaching About Islam in American Schools
Teaching About Religion
Teaching About Religion in American Life, A First Amendment Guide,
Teaching About Religion in National and State Social Studies Standards,
Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools post 9/11, the PEW Forum,
Teaching About Religion in Public Schools
Teaching About Religion in Public Schools, Max Fisher
Teaching About Religion and the Bible: legal considerations
Teaching Science, Not Dogma: The Creationism Controversy
Through the Looking Glass: Promoting Islam in the Public Schools?, Sheila Musaji
What part of ‘no law respecting an establishment of religion’ does North Carolina not understand?, Barry W. Lynn
Why an Academic Study of Religion?,