Ramadan in public schools

Each year, public schools and universities across the country consider Muslim students’ requests for religious accommodation during Ramadan, the holy month of prayer and fasting. Accommodations can include separate rooms where fasting students can go during lunch; places for students to perform daily prayers; the consideration of requests to make Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that ends Ramadan, a school holiday; and the installation of footbaths in restrooms to make it easier for students to follow prayer rituals.

Background

Most school officials try to grant such requests, according to observers, but such accommodations also bring challenges from those who claim they violate church-state separation by giving one religious group special treatment. Here are some of the controversies involving religious accommodations of Muslims and other groups in public schools from the elementary to the university level:

  • Controversy ensued when Muslim father Mohammed Alhrabi visited Dixie Bee elementary school and distributed flowers to teachers and cards bearing religious messages to students, about the prophet Mohammed. (See a March 21, 2013, Examiner.com story.)
  • A Muslim organization faced opposition when it bought a Eagle Elementary School in West Bloomfield, Mich., and planned to open a Islamic school in its place. (See a Aug. 14, 2012, Cair Michigan story.)
  • The San Diego Unified School District faced scrutiny after allowing Muslim students at Carver Elementary School 15 minutes a day for prayer. A teacher claimed the students were led in prayer by a school aide, a violation of U.S. Department of Education guidelines. Religious and civil rights groups quickly began monitoring the school. (See a July 2, 2007, San Diego Union-Tribune story.)
  • The University of Michigan-Dearborn used $25,000 in student fees to install footbaths in campus restrooms. The footbaths are seen as an accommodation for Muslim students, who must wash their feet and hands before prayer. The Minneapolis Community and Technical College was bombarded with hate mail when it, too, announced plans to install footbaths. (See an Aug. 29, 2007, Washington Times story.)
  • The opening of two public schools that cater to two particular cultural groups raised questions about religious accommodation and whether public funds should support schools with religious focuses. In New York, the Khalil Gibran International Academy emphasizes Arabic, and in Hollywood, Fla., the Ben Gamla Charter School emphasizes Hebrew. Both have drawn critics. (See a Sept. 5, 2007, story in Education Week.)
  • At the forefront of the push for religious accommodation in public universities is the Muslim Students Association, which has formed a Muslim Accommodations Task Force to push for footbaths and prayer rooms.
  • There is a growing movement among Muslims to have Eid al-Fitr, the festival which marks the end of Ramadan, recognized as a public school holiday.
  • A public school in Wiscasset, Maine, opened a “wellness room” for students and staff to use outside of class time for the reduction of stress. The room can be used for many stress-reduction practices, some of which have a religious origin, such as prayer, meditation, yoga and Reiki, which sparked a community debate. (Read an Aug. 26, 2007, New York Times column by Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman in which he holds up the wellness room as a good solution to a church-state conflict in schools. It’s posted by Harvard Law School.)

Why it matters

Public schools are one of the primary places where Americans negotiate how to live with their religious differences. School officials often find themselves confronting gray areas where laws and court rulings aren’t clear. These challenges are becoming more common as the country becomes religiously diverse and as various groups become more committed to the practice or public expression of their faith.

Questions for reporters

  • How do schools in your area accommodate Muslim students requests during Ramadan?
  • What do non-Muslim students, parents and educators think about the accommodations?
  • Is there a push to make Eid al-Fitr or other religious holidays school holidays in your area?

Articles

Additional resources

  • The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: Education

    The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provides a resource page on issues relating to religion and public schools, such as the evolution debate.

  • Faith Communities Today (FACT)

    Based at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary. Has data from 2000, 2005, 2008, and 2010. The survey involved researchers and religious leaders in a survey of 14,300 American congregations of all faiths and denominations. FACT can provide information about megachurches (Protestant churches claiming 2,000 or more attending weekly worship), which have been growing at the same time as the planting of small churches has increased. The site also provides links to recent articles about church growth and trends.

  • The Pluralism Project

    The Pluralism Project at Harvard University lists resources across the country by religious tradition, including interfaith resources. It is aimed at engaging students in studying the new religious diversity in the United States.

  • Americas Society/ Council of the Americas

    The Americas Society/Council of the Americas provides information on diverse cultures in the Americas. It has offices in New York City, Washington D.C., and Miami.

National sources

  • Robert Boston

    Robert Boston is senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and assistant editor of its monthly magazine, Church & State.

    He debated the issue of religious accommodation in public schools on the Fox television program “Big Story Weekend” on July 30, 2007.

  • Brad Dacus

    Brad Dacus is president of the Pacific Justice Institute of Sacramento, Calif. The institute is a religious liberty advocacy organization that has litigated on behalf of churches such as the Independent Baptist Church of Sacramento in land use cases.

    The organization helped develop a districtwide prayer policy for the San Diego Unified School District.

  • Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

    The Becket Fund is a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., that works to protect the free expression of all religious traditions. Stephanie Keenan handles media inquiries.

    The fund intervened on behalf of Muslim students in Richardson, Texas, when the principal of their high school prevented them from praying during school at Ramadan.

  • Edina Lekovic

    Edina Lekovic is the Director of Policy and Programming of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

    She debated the subject of religious accommodation in the public schools on the Fox television program “Big Story Weekend” on July 30, 2007. She said she did not think most Muslims would support a school-sanctioned prayer.

  • Jeremy Gunn

    Jeremy Gunn is director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s new Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. The ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of UDV.

    He has said some accommodations for Muslims, such as the footbaths at the University of Michigan, are in a murky area of the law. He can discuss religious expression in schools both in the U.S. and throughout the world.

  • William Donohue

    William Donohue is president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an organization that is akin to a Catholic counterpart to the Anti-Defamation League.

    The group aligned itself with the Stop the Madrassa Coalition to challenge public funding of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arabic language charter school, in New York City.

  • Charles Haynes

    Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. He writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life.


    He has written that the line between reasonable religious accommodation and the violation of the Establishment Clause is razor-thin and that allowing students to pray during school is reasonable, but that releasing them from class to attend a prayer service on school grounds is a violation of the Constitution. He can discuss cases of religious accommodation in public schools.

  • Salam Al-Marayati

    Salam Al-Marayati is president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The group condemned both the Danish cartoons and the violence they spawned.

  • Ihsan Bagby

    Ihsan Bagby is an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky and an expert in Islam and its history and practice in North America. He is one of the authors of the research report “The American Mosque 2011.”

  • Noah Feldman

    Noah Feldman is a professor at Harvard Law School whose specialties include the relationship between law and religion. He gave the keynote address, “Persecution and the Art of Secrecy: An Interpretation of the Mormon Encounter with American Politics,” at a 2007 conference on Mormonism and American politics. He also wrote a July 22, 2007, essay in The New York Times Magazine (subscription required) titled “Orthodox Paradox,” about his drift away from the Orthodox Judaism of his youth. He has a doctorate in Islamic thought and is an expert on Middle East politics and Islamic constitutional law.

  • M. Zuhdi Jasser

    M. Zuhdi Jasser is founder and chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which promotes separation of mosque and state. He has said that “unusual accommodations” for one faith is not pluralism. AIFD is based in Phoenix, Ariz.

  • Stop the Madrassa Coalition

    Stop the Madrassa Coalition was formed after the opening of Khalil Gibran International Academy, a charter school that focuses on teaching Arabic.

  • Frank J. Gaffney Jr.

    Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy, a nonprofit that looks for threats to American security and works to draw public and government attention to those threats. He is a supporter of the Stop the Madrassa Coalition and has been critical of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York City.

  • Richard Thompson

    Richard Thompson is president and chief counsel of The Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., which defended the Dover, Pa., district in a lawsuit that challenged its rules requiring the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

  • Lisa Soronen

    Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center. She can discuss the various lawsuits brought by Muslims and members of other faiths for religious accommodation in the public schools.

  • John W. Whitehead

    John W. Whitehead is president and founder of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit organization in Charlottesville, Va., that works to advance religious freedom through litigation, education and advocacy. Although the institute has a Christian doctrinal statement, its services are not limited to Christians.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Mongi Dhaouadi

    Mongi Dhaouadi is the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Connecticut chapter. He can discuss accommodation of Muslim students in Bridgeport, Conn., schools, which assigned a room for Muslim students during lunches at Ramadan.

  • Jay McIntire

    Jay McIntire is the school superintendent of the Brewer School Department in Maine, which has about 800 students. He approved the use of a “wellness room” in one of his former school district’s public schools as a place where students and staff could go to reduce stress. Parents and others raised concerns that meditation, prayer or another religious practice would be performed in the room and that this might constitute an unfair religious accommodation.

    Contact: 207-989-3160.
  • J. Richard Ratcliffe

    J. Richard Ratcliffe is a lawyer in Providence, R.I. As a speaker for the Center for First Amendment Rights in Hartford, Conn., he frequently talks with high school, college and professional groups about the First Amendment.

  • Jay Wexler

    Jay Wexler is a law professor at Boston University who specializes in First Amendment issues, including religious expression in public schools and the public square. In March 2007, he participated in a conference titled “Beyond the Culture Wars: A Leadership Conference on the Future of Religion in the Public Schools” at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

  • Bruce Dierenfield

    Bruce Dierenfield is a professor of history at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. He is the author of The Battle Over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America (2007).

  • Rochelle Eisenberg

    Rochelle Eisenberg is an attorney who specializes in education law and has represented superintendents and school boards across the state of Maryland. She can discuss what it would take to close Maryland schools for Eid al-Fitr.

  • Khalid Qazi

    Khalid Qazi heads the Buffalo, N.Y., chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

In the South

  • Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im

    Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. He is an expert on Islamic law, and his interests also include human rights, reproductive rights and women’s rights in Islam. He is a participating scholar with the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics.

    He can address the accommodations of Muslims who want to play sports in public schools.

  • Ahmed Bedier

    Ahmed Bedier is the founder and past executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In 2006, for the first time, he met with Tampa U.S. Customs and TSA officials to discuss the travel plans of local residents preparing for hajj. He now serves as the president of the Tampa/Hillsborough County Human Rights Council and has created an organization called United Voices for America.

    He can discuss the Hillsborough County Public Schools’ decision to cancel all school holidays that fall on religious holidays (except Christmas) after a divisive debate over which religious holidays to include on the school calendar.

  • Tahvia Shaw

    Tahvia Shaw is the principal of Terrace Community Middle School in Thonotosassa, Fla. The school was the first in its district to make Eid al-Fitr a school holiday. The school is in Hillsborough County, which eliminated all religious holidays, except Christmas, after it added Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as holidays and then received requests from Muslim groups for Eid al-Fitr to be added.

  • David Hudson

    David Hudson is an adjunct professor of law at Vanderbilt University and scholar on the staff of the First Amendment Center at the university’s Nashville campus. He is an expert on First Amendment and church-state issues.

  • The University of Arkansas’ Muslim Students Association

    The Muslim Students Association at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville has an on-campus prayer room.

  • Ron Griffen

    Ron Griffen is the principal of L.V. Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas, which began allowing prayer during lunch breaks after a Muslim student filed a 2005 lawsuit against a school policy banning prayer.

In the Midwest

  • Wayel Azmeh

    Dr. Wayel Azmeh is a cardiologist who heads the Dayton, Ohio, chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

    Contact: 937-223-4461.
  • Timothy Cannon

    Timothy Cannon is principal of Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Ill. The school sets aside an area for Muslim students’ afternoon prayers during Ramadan.

  • Edward E. Curtis IV

    Curtis is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. He is the author of Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam: 1960-1975 (2006) and editor of The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States (2008).

  • Zakia Hyder

    Zakia Hyder is an author and a Muslim who lives in Mason, Ohio, where the school board considered the rights of Muslim students to a separate room for lunch periods during Ramadan. She wrote an opinion piece for the Cincinnati Enquirer calling for the school board to spend its time providing quality education and not religious accommodation issues.

  • The University of Michigan’s Muslim Students Association

    The Muslim Students Association at the University of Michigan in Dearborn installed footbaths for Muslim students.

  • Frank Ravitch

    Frank Ravitch is a professor of law and religion at Michigan State University in East Lansing and a scholar of constitutional law and of law and religion. He is author of School Prayer and Discrimination: The Civil Rights of Religious Minorities and Dissenters (Northeastern University, 2001) and Law and Religion, A Reader: Cases, Concepts and Theory (Thomson/West, 2004).

  • Charles Russo

    Charles Russo is the author of the textbook Reutter’s The Law of Public Education and an adjunct professor of law at Dayton University in Dayton, Ohio. He has said that religious accommodation for Muslims will be a growing issue as the U.S. population continues to become more diverse.

  • Michael Steinberg

    Michael Steinberg is legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

    His group represented a Muslim girl in her quest to wear a swimsuit her family deemed acceptable to their religious beliefs to swim at a public pool. As a result, the local park and recreation commission unanimously passed what may be the nation’s first swimwear policy that accommodates people who cannot wear traditional swimsuits for religious reasons.

    Contact: 313-578-6800.

In the West

  • Liyakat N. Takim

    Liyakat N. Takim is a professor of religious studies and holds the Sharjah Chair in Global Islam at McMaster University in Ontario. His focus is in the area of charisma and the struggle for authority in the classical period of Islam. He is the author of The Heirs of the Prophet: Charisma and Religious Authority in Shi’ite Islam.

  • Caprice Hollins

    Caprice Hollins is the former director of equity and race relations for the Seattle school district. The office has established a committee to examine the needs of Muslim students in public schools. She now works at a consulting firm providing culturally relevant professional development and consulting services to organizations seeking to improve their skills in effectively engaging all cultures.

  • Hanif Mohebi

    Hanif Mohebi is executive director for the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

  • Steven Smith

    Steven Smith is dean of the college and professor of communication at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He also holds the seminary’s James T. Draper Chair of Pastoral Ministry. Smith is the author of Dying to Preach: Embracing the Cross in the Pulpit (2009), in which he discusses “why the preacher must die to self, die for others and die in Christ so that congregations may live.”

    He can discuss the legal issues in the Carver Elementary School case, in which Muslim students were allowed time for prayer during the school day.

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