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Georgia Schools Accomodate Muslim Religious Needs

  • Joshua Levs

Religious instruction is prohibited in America’s taxpayer-supported public schools because of a strict separation between church and state mandated by the U.S. Constitution. But public schools do try to accommodate the religious traditions of students -- for example, by allowing them to miss class for religious holidays. Now, increasing numbers of schools are facing a new challenge: they're being asked to let some Muslim students out early every Friday throughout the entire year. That's when Muslims come together for the most important service of the week, Juma'ah.

Juma'ah is the Arabic word for collecting,” explains Jamal Haysaw, who teaches Islam at a private school in Atlanta and delivers sermons at mosques throughout the area. “We come together every day in the mosques, open every day for five daily prayers,” he says. “But this is a time where we're told we have to make it. Congregation is very important in prayers - there are more blessings received when you do that.”

Mr. Haysaw says the service provides Muslims with an important opportunity for community building. That’s especially important to the Rashied family of Duluth, Georgia, just north of Atlanta. “Many smaller mosques close down,” says Khalid Rashied, a father of five. “You go to a bigger one, a bigger community, get to know them, find out difficulties if anybody's in need, to help each other out.”

Mr. Rashied's two oldest children attend a public school, Duluth High. In earlier grades they went to a private Muslim school. Now, their classes end too late for them to make it to the Juma’ah service. Isam Rashied says it is as if part of his life is missing. “Since I've been learning about it all my life, I've been practicing it,” he says. “And suddenly it's like you do something every day - like eat breakfast - and somebody suddenly stops you from eating a meal.”

So Khalid Rashied asked Duluth High School to let his children out early every Friday to attend services. The school gave its permission during the holy month of Ramadan, but not for the entire year. “The system concerns in this matter had to do with attendance requirements at both the federal and state levels,” said Sloan Roach, spokeswoman for the school district, “as well as the fact that students who missed every Friday of a sixth period class, they would be missing 20 percent of classroom instruction for that sixth period class.”

School officials say they are concerned about a student's ability to make up so much missed work. Teachers would also have to manage each student’s makeup work and could never hold tests on Fridays -- which could affect class scheduling for the entire year. Ms. Roach says that, in making the decision, the school looked at legal cases involving the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which protects freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

Based on rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, the government -- including a public school -- is within its rights to turn down a religious request, according to Eric Segall, a First Amendment expert at Georgia State University Law School. “When a student wants to receive a special accommodation because of religious practices from a public school,” he says, “the school under the most recent precedent does not really have any First Amendment constitutional obligation to make that accommodation.” But Mr. Segall notes that schools can choose to agree to the accommodation.

Across the country, more parents are beginning to make such requests. “We get a fairly steady amount of calls on this issue,” says Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights and advocacy group. He says different schools are coming up with different solutions, including changes in the students' schedules. “It's always some kind of negotiating process that we have to go through to try and resolve the situation,” says Mr. Hooper. “One of the best ways to resolve it is to have the Friday prayers in the school if there's a sufficient number of Muslim students.”

Public schools can allow students to pray in school as long as they do so on their own, without the involvement of teachers or faculty. However, for a Juma'ah service, many Muslims believe 40 participants are required. The Rashied family says there would not be that many Muslim students at Duluth High School. After the family and a representative from Mr. Hooper's organization explained the dilemma to school officials, the county offered a solution. Muslim students could drop out of sixth period classes altogether and choose one of three options: take an after school class, take a course online, or try to get credit for religious study. If that failed, the student might have to take a summer class.

School district spokeswoman Sloan Roach says the options were commensurate with school policies. “They were reasonable,” she says, “met what the group was asking for, what Mr. Rashied was asking for his sons, but obviously also met what we needed to do as a system.”

The Rashieds thanked the school district for bending over backwards to help -- but they still have concerns. Affected students say they don't want to be left out of sixth period or stay late every day for an after school class. And the school system does not allow students who end each school day early to stay on campus on those days when they don’t have services. Khalid Rashied says that could be a problem “It might be a hardship for some of the parents to pick up children throughout the year, not just once a week,” he says. “That is the solution we were looking for, and we did not find it.”

The family plans to continue discussions with the school. A local representative of the Council on American Islamic Relations had only praise for the offer and said it was the first example he knows of in which a school in the region made it possible for students to leave for Juma'ah all year long. The group plans to get the word out, in hopes that it may inspire parents in other school districts to call for similar accommodations.

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