Accommodating Muslims in public school: where to draw the line?
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

It isn’t easy being a Muslim in America these days.

The statistics are chilling. Last year anti-Muslim violence, discrimination and harassment in the United States increased by nearly 70%, according to a report released last week by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. (That’s 1,019 incidents, CAIR said.)

That’s why Muslim students in public schools are often reluctant to ask school officials for accommodation for required prayers or other religious needs. Who can blame them for keeping silent and hoping that the surge in Islam-bashing will eventually recede?

But some things can’t wait. When required daily prayers fall within the school day, for example, Muslim students need a place to pray. And when Muslim girls wearing head scarves arrive at a school with a “no head coverings” policy, they need an exemption on grounds of conscience.

Some school officials take a hard line — as when the Muskogee, Okla., school district suspended a Muslim girl last year for refusing to remove her scarf. Fortunately, most educators instinctively do the right thing and accommodate these requests. Even when they may not have to do so, they want to find some way to allow students to follow the requirements of their faith.

But there are limits to accommodation. Until recently, well-meaning administrators in two school districts (California and Texas) allowed Muslim students to use an empty classroom every Friday for congregational prayer, called Jum’ah. Given the complexities of student schedules, this arrangement meant that many students were released from class to join the hourlong gathering.

School officials have now put a stop to the practice in both places — not out of animus toward Islam, but because they realized they had crossed a First Amendment line.

It’s true that students in a public school are free to pray — alone or in groups — as long as they aren’t disruptive and don’t interfere with others’ rights. If students want to pray between classes or at lunch in informal settings such as hallways or the cafeteria, they are free to do so. And there’s no problem with allowing students to use a section of the library or a free classroom for brief prayers, as long as safety and discipline are maintained — and students don’t miss much class.

But if schools get involved in releasing students from classes to attend a prayer service in the school building, that looks like a First Amendment violation to me. Under the establishment clause, administrators may not organize, sponsor, or otherwise entangle themselves in religious activities during the school day.

This is a painful line to draw. For Muslims, Jum’ah prayer isn’t just another prayer service that can be performed at any time — it’s an obligation of faith that must be fulfilled each Friday. Christians and Jews don’t face this dilemma since the school calendar accommodates people with worship services on Saturday and Sunday (although some Jews and Seventh-day Adventists are frozen out of the many school activities planned for Friday night and Saturday).

Rather than just saying “no,” school districts have two other alternatives. If the secondary school allows extracurricular clubs, then Muslim students may form a student-led club under the Equal Access Act. They could meet for Jum’ah prayers every Friday if, and only if, all other extracurricular clubs are allowed to meet during that time. Given the academic program, rolling lunch periods and other scheduling problems, setting aside a “club period” on Friday may not be practical or possible for many schools. But it’s one option.

Or schools could set up a released-time program on Fridays, allowing students to go off-campus for religious activities. Although school districts don’t have to allow released-time, the Supreme Court has made clear that they may do so to meet needs of religious students and parents. School officials may not encourage or discourage participation, and they must allow all religious groups to participate.

As some school districts have discovered, releasing kids for an hour on Friday afternoon can be a problem. It’s hard to get them back to finish the school day. But the burden of ensuring that students get to the worship service and back safely and on time is squarely on the religious community. If the local mosque (or church or synagogue) isn’t willing to make this happen, then the program won’t work.

Whatever the approach, school districts have a civic duty to look for a solution. In the current climate of anti-Muslim rhetoric, how schools — and all sectors of American society — respond to the growth of Islam in this country is a real test of our national character.

Let’s not forget that many Americans failed this test in the 19th century when the Protestant majority greeted waves of Catholic and Jewish immigration with widespread nativism and discrimination in schools and elsewhere.

This time around, let’s do better. If at all possible, no Muslim American — and no American of any faith — should have to choose between following conscience and enjoying the benefits of a public education.

Is it messy? Complicated? Hard work? Of course it is. But that’s always the price of religious freedom.