Through the Looking Glass: Promoting Islam in the Public Schools?
by Sheila Musaji
(updated 10/1/2009 - updates at bottom of page)
In a Nov. 24, 2004 article entitled Spreading Islam in American Public Schools  Daniel Pipes found it “ominous” that a Muslim group wants to promote Islam in the public schools. He went on to say: “Another website points to a far deeper agenda, that of dawa, or using taxpayer-funded schools to proselytize for Islam. Their goals are summed up by an article it hosts: “How to Make America an Islamic Nation.”  But what concerns us is a page, “Dawa in public schools,” that portrays public schools as “fertile grounds where the seeds of Islam can be sowed inside the hearts of non-Muslim students.”
Since that article appeared there have been a number of articles on various sites and even a few court cases questioning whether or not teaching about any religion should be part of the public school curriculum. The overwhelming majority of these concerns have been raised about the possibility of Islam being taught about in the public schools at all, or about the possibility that coverage of Islam is too positive.
In looking over their materials, DawaNet appears to hold a view that it is appropriate to proselytize in public schools, and this idea would not be in agreement with the views of any mainstream Muslim organizations. This attitude is definitely a minority opinion, and one that I believe most American Muslims would disagree with. I have searched the net diligently and can find no other Muslim group that holds such views. In fact, I found just the opposite.
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.
Refer to past articles we have published on The American Muslim website on the subject of teaching about religion in the public schools for clarification of our position: e.g. Educating About Islam, or The Islamic Speakers Bureau.
Refer to the sites of the major organizations that do training for educating about Islam: Islamic Networks Group  or Council on Islamic Education.  You will find that they stress following first amendment guidelines and maintaining a clear distinction between promoting a religion and educating about a religion.
While I could not find any Islamic websites that agreed in any way with the one example given by Pipes, I found a whole series of articles discussing proselytizing for Christianity in the public schools, some of them by mainstream Christian groups:
- Franklin Graham’s Vision: A Student Evangelist in Every Public School Class - “I want to see at least one child in every class in every public school in America who is trained as a witness for Jesus Christ.” 
- Jerry Falwell’s Vision - I hope I live to see the day, when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be! [America Can Be Saved, (1979)] 
- Chosen Few School and Prison Ministry - “The guys go into public schools and do secular music, while talking about overcoming the peer pressure of fitting in. Casey shares about overcoming his high school drug addiction, Brian discusses about going through school with an artificial leg and how itёs ok to be different, Ashley talks about being on the #1 outdoors TV show, ShowMe Outdoor Adventuresӓ and demonstrates his expertise of shooting a bow, and Scott tells kids how music can change your life. The real reason Chosen Few is going into schools is to get the kids to come to a Gospel concert that night in a church.” 
- Teaching Students How to Share Their Faith 
- Back to School: Now How Do I Witness? - “A public school setting is a great place to witness. I know that it is tough, but it is also very important. Most people become Christians before they are 21 years of age! That is High School and College age!” 
- Reach Your Entire Campus With the Gospel 
- How to Reach Your Campus for Christ - One Student at a Time  and a whole series of such articles at the Christianity Today website. 
- Defending Christian Freedoms in the Public Schools 
- Worldwide Challenge Magazine - Take Jesus to School - “Some parents help their children organize Bible clubs at their public school. Others simply encourage their children to write or talk in school about the Christian perspective on topics like creationism, abortion, euthanasia or even Christ Himself. Some distribute Bibles and other Christian literature. Whether overtly proclaiming Christ’s love and forgiveness, or by finding unique ways to bring Christ to school, Christian adults can influence the American school system for Christ.” 
- Share Jesus in the Public Schools 
- Cultivating Change in Your School 
- Public School Students’ Flyer 
- Bringing God back to public schools 
- Chick Tracts: A Powerful Weapon in the Public Schools From Your Spiritual Arsenal - includes a story about a way to reach studentsӔ - “Our school newspaper sold ads for various products and services, and did not restrict what could be advertised. I knew that this would be a great witnessing opportunity! I placed an ad in the shape of a coupon, and it included my photograph. It stated that I would give a “free gift” to everyone who redeemed the coupon. All the students would have to do was clip out the ad, recognize me from the picture, and “redeem” it when they handed it to me. The “free gift” was…you guessed it, CHICK TRACTS! The cafeteria during the lunch hour was filled with students reading Chick tracts and receiving the Gospel of Jesus Christ, all without a sermon or church service. Most significant was the fact that I was witnessing to fellow students without being disruptive or violating the laws. Since I was a student and not a state-paid teacher, I had no restrictions on what I could say or what literature I chose to give away.” 
- Denver Public Schools Promoting Christianity? 
- FAQ’s on Witnessing 
- How to Have Prayers in Public Schools Legally 
- How to Start a Christian Club in a Public School 
- The Bible and Public Schools 
- Christianity and Public Education 
- Evolution and Creationism in Public Schools 
- Evangelicals Can Include Flyers in School Take Home Packets 
- Religious Expression: What Is Legally Permissable in Public Schools 
- The Bible in Public Schools 
- Prayer at Public School Sports Events 
- Prayer in Public Schools 
I believe that there are a number of Christian groups that are crossing the line between teaching about a religion and promoting a religion, and have a misunderstanding about the separation of church and state. (see a series of alarming quotes at  )
The bottom line is that there is a clear and established principle differentiating teaching about a religion and proseletyzing for any religion. If there are any cases in which that line is crossed by members of any religious group, then as citizens we should insist that it not happen again. However, to attempt to remove any teaching or discussion about any religion in the public schools would be almost impossible. I can think of many historical events for example that would make no sense at all unless the religious dimension were understood.
by courtesy & 2005 The American Muslim First published 11/1/2005
AUGUST 13, 2009 UPDATE
This week Religion Dispatches published an article: “Texas Board of Education Wants to Change History” by Lauri Lebo ( http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/churchstate/1726/texas_board_of_education_wants_to_change_history ) which once again raises the spector of undue Christian influence on school textbooks. According to the article:
“Rev. Peter Marshall (one of their appointed academic experts), for example, wants to restore America, according to the Web site of his Massachusetts-based ministry, “to its Bible-based foundations through preaching, teaching, and writing on America’s Christian heritage and on Christian discipleship and revival.” He also believes that Hurricane Katrina, Watergate, and the Vietnam War are the result of divine wrath.
As part of his curriculum review for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills process, Marshall issued an assessment of a Grade 5 history section in which students are asked to “describe the accomplishments of significant colonial leaders such as Anne Hutchinson, William Penn, John Smith, and Roger Williams.”
Marshall, along with his fellow reviewer David Barton, did not believe that students in the public education system should learn about Hutchinson:
“Anne Hutchinson does not belong in the company of these eminent gentlemen. She was certainly not a significant colonial leader, and didn’t accomplish anything except getting herself exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for making trouble.”
One of the original Puritans, Hutchinson disagreed with some of the scriptural teachings of the religious leaders and began hosting her own Bible study classes in her home. For this crime, Hutchinson was placed on trial and banished from her community. Later, she and her exiled family were killed in a Siwanoy attack.
“This is a prime example of somebody who believed in religious freedom and was persecuted for that,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.”
SEPTEMBER 18, 2009 UPDATE
“A mother is angry about a trip led by the head football coach at Breckinridge County High School took about 20 players on a school bus late last month to his church, where nearly half of them — including her son — were baptized. Michelle Ammons said her 16-year-old son was baptized without her knowledge and consent, and she is upset that a public school bus was used to take players to a church service — and that the school district’s superintendent was there and did not object.” See: Ky. school trip to church that included baptisms raises questions http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-09-08-school-baptisms_N.htm
OCTOBER 1, 2009 UPDATE
A public school district in Michigan issued permission slips to elementary school students that would allow them to attend Bible classes in a Baptist church. The slips were issued by the school district. “The parents of a Muslim student expressed concerns about the permission slip, said Dawud Walid, head of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Walid then wrote a letter today to the school’s principal and the superintendent of Roseville Community Schools, saying that the district was favoring one religion and denomination with the permission slips for Temple Baptist Church. 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,” Walid said. “
Releasing students from school to go for religious studies classes makes perfect sense. But, encouraging students to attend the classes of a particular religious group is something their parents or religious community should do, not the public schools. If public schools want to send home a note telling parents that there is a law that allows them to have their children released from school in order to attend religious or ethnic classes, that is fine, but to promote the classes of a particular religious group goes beyond the mandate of the public schools.
See: ACLU-TN Responds to Religious Activity in Tennessee Public Schools http://www.wrcbtv.com/Global/story.asp?S=11223614
School district says it erred in allowing church permission slips http://www.freep.com/article/20091001/NEWS04/91001066/1001/NEWS/School-district-says-it-erred-in-allowing-church-permission-slips
A PDF of the permission slip http://www.cair.com/Portals/0/pdf/Roseville-Public-Schools.pdf
In another case at a High School in Georgia “For six years or so, cheerleaders at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School have painted elaborate paper banners, adorned with Bible verses, through which football players have dashed at the outset of games. For instance, recently, from Philippians 3:14: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus.” After receiving complaints, the school system has stopped this practice. “A school system statement released Monday said the message constitutes “a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution for signs with Bible verses to be displayed on the football field.” See: No more on running through Scripture on football Friday http://blogs.ajc.com/political-insider-jim-galloway/2009/09/30/no-more-on-running-through-scripture-on-a-football-friday-night/
This non-issue continues to be raised in different forms. Pamela Geller has just 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 finds so alarming and sees 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.
Hard to believe, but Pamela Geller has just posted Mosqueing of the public school which is simply a video of an Imam telling a Muslim student that he could ask his local mosque for a letter to give to his public school teacher letting her know that he wants to be allowed to say a required prayer outside of the classroom. Not very shocking, and within the law. She also includes a link to her previous 5/9/2010 nonsense.
Alternet has published The Littlest Missionaries: A New Christian Plot to Invade Public Schools. The article notes:
In a tactical sense, religious fundamentalists in America appear to have taken a page from the same book. The constitution and the law prohibits adults from, say, establishing ministries within public schools aimed at proselytizing to the children during school hours. But a growing number of religious activists have come to realize that it’s technically legal if they get the kids to do their work for them. OK, so religious proselytizing is not the same thing as running drugs – but manipulating kids to exploit legal loopholes isn’t pretty wherever it happens.
This tactic has been tested and deployed in a great number of situations already in schools across the country. Right now, a large group of fundamentalist organizations and church denominations is making a big bet that they will be able to pull it off on a national scale, starting in 2013.
If you go to the Every Student Every School website, you’ll see that their dozens of promotional videos are first-rate. The music is great, the cameras are professionally handled, the sound bites are short and snappy. Their message is very clear.
As ESES’s name implies, their idea is to proselytize every student in every public school in America through an aggressive “Adopt-a-School” campaign. And the way to do it is to have the kids do what grownups are not allowed to do – establish full-fledged missionary operations inside the schools. A clever map allows viewers to click on their state and type in their area code, revealing every school in the district and determine whether it has been “adopted” by churches or other religious organizations. Kids from those entities are instructed to conduct daily prayer groups during the school day, distribute religious literature and are given numerous other ideas for practicing or promoting their religion at school.
“We must help our teenagers get serious about sharing their faith with those God has place in their lives,” an article on the ESES website advises. According to ESES’s Campus Prayer Guide, evangelical Christian students are in a “strategic position” to proselytize “unchurched” peers, and advises these students to “consider every school a PRAYER ZONE.”
Who is behind ESES and its sponsoring group, Campus Alliance? It is backed by nearly 60 large-scale fundamentalist initiatives and church denominations, including the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, Young Life, Youth with a Mission, Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) and the Life Book Movement, a project of the Gideons International.
ESES is the fulfillment of a strategy that has been unfolding for the past few decades. It started with student groups rightfully claiming certain free speech rights in public schools. After all, kids can and should be allowed to talk about their religion with their friends at school. It led to a legal distinction by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that seems more simple on the surface than it is in practice – the distinction between private speech by students and speech that is linked to school authorities or the authority of the school.
This distinction was perhaps too simplistic. After all, when students give class presentations, they don’t have a right to express just any views on any subject they choose. Schools routinely restrict student speech – directing kids to speak politely, or speak in turn, for instance – when it makes sense for educational purposes, and even sometimes when it doesn’t. This distinction ultimately led to what some fundamentalist activists took to calling a “God-given loophole”.
September 26th, for instance, marked the 22nd annual “See You at the Pole” prayer event, in which children nationwide gathered around the flagpole at their schools and prayed in as ostentatious a manner as possible. The event is purportedly “student-led”. But at the SYAP I attended, local pastors directed kids in their youth groups to join, told them what to do, loaned them sound amplification equipment, participated in the event and hosted an after-party at a local mega-church, which was staffed with adults wearing t-shirts with the SYAP logo.
These initiatives are “student-led” in the same sense that a pee-wee soccer league is student-led. Yes, it’s the kids kicking the ball, but you have to be pretty detached from reality to imagine that there would be kids on that playing field in the first place without the grown-ups organizing and funding their activities, and cheering them from the sidelines.
Bible distribution programs are pursuing the same tactic. For years, adult missionaries with the Gideons International sought to distribute Bibles in public schools – with limited success, as adults are not allowed to hand out religious literature on public school grounds. But give a stash of evangelical tracts to a kid, and the kid is allowed to do it for them. In the past three years since its inception, the Life Book movement, a “peer evangelism” project of the Gideons International, claims to have distributed over 3.4m evangelical tracts, written with teens in mind, to kids on school campuses nationwide.
In many instances, such activities like this will appear as a nuisance at the margin, one of those violations of the spirit of the constitution, if not the letter, that would seem to be more about symbolism and principle than anything else. But in this case, it would be naïve to imagine that that is the end game. The goal of such initiatives, quite clearly, is to normalize the idea that public schools should be venues for religious activity. Once you’ve got churches entangling themselves in the schools, it is very hard to remove them.
New York City’s department of education found this out the hard way. After being forced by the courts to allow churches rent-free access to space within public schools, a new constituency was created: namely, churchgoers and church leaders accustomed to having state-subsidized houses of worship. Even though the second circuit court of appeals recognized that there was a serious constitutional concern here, the department of education has run into heavy political resistance, which they are still battling today.
Defenders of such religious initiatives call their efforts a fight for “religious freedom.” But largely what they seek are special privileges for their religion alone. The normalization of the integration of church and school comes from very particular strands of the Christian faith; not every Christian denomination, or every religion, is involved in this kind of activity. Mainline Christian denominations, to give just one example, are largely excluded. The work of ESES and its friends creates precisely those ills against which the constitutional principle of the “separation of church and state” was intended to defend.
Such mixing of church and school is sure to cause conflict and division – especially among parents who are not represented by the school-churches. It will burden public school officials who already have enough to deal with in terms of instruction and management, and are frankly not equipped to handle sectarian conflicts in school communities. But the groups involved in these efforts won’t be deterred by that division. In fact, many of them welcome it. Many fundamentalists simply do not accept public schools as legitimate enterprises in the first place. They see public education as secular education, and therefore intrinsically hostile to their religion.
At their core, they do not accept that we live in a diverse society with a secular form of government. If their activities degrade support for the public schools or even destroy them, they will not be sorry to see them go.
Primer on the First Amendment & Religious Freedom, ADL http://www.adl.org/main_Religious_Freedom/first_amendment_religious_freedom_primer
Arizona text pulled after uproar over positive mention of Islam, http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/story/39120 (2005)
Creationism in schools http://rationalwiki.com/wiki/Creationism_in_Schools and http://ncacblog.wordpress.com/tag/creationism/
Evolution / ID / creationism - conflicts in U.S. public schools http://www.religioustolerance.org/ev_school.htm
Religion and prayer in U.S. public schools, libraries, etc. http://www.religioustolerance.org/ps_pray.htm
Religion in the Public Schools http://www.adl.org/religion_ps_2004/
Religious Holidays in the Public Schools http://www.freedomforum.org/publications/first/findingcommonground/b08.holidays.pdf
Teaching Science, Not Dogma: The Creationism Controversy http://www.adl.org/issue_religious_freedom/create/creationism_print.asp