Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Bookbags and prayer rugs

Within the U S, we recognise and pursue the seperation of church and state. It seems though, from recent reports, that there have been significant moves toward the very edge of what that seperation really is.

The debate now brewing is whether Islam is being given preferential treatment over other religions within our public schools and universities. The reports are that some public schools and universities are granting Muslim requests for prayer times, prayer rooms and ritual foot baths at the schools.

The Muslim Student's Association, which has formed a Muslim Accomodations Task Force, is at the forefront of the push for foot baths and prayer rooms. At least 17 universities have foot baths built or under construction, including Boston University, George Washington University and Temple University. There are at least nine universities, including Emory, Stanford and the University of Virginia that have prayer rooms for "Muslim students only," according to the MSA's Website. At George Mason University, non-Muslim students were asked to observe Muslim rules within the prayer area, such as keeping men and women seperate and removing their shoes. A recent article though, in the school newspaper, "Broadside," prompted the school to order students to roll up prayer rugs and move the dividers when not in use. The University of Michigan agreed to install foot baths after talks with the MSA stated Terry Gallagher, director of public relations.

More troubling I believe, is the report that in San Diego, a substitute teacher at Carver Elementary School alleges that teachers were indoctrinating students into Muslim practices. The San Diego Unified School District determined that a teacher's aide was wrong to lead Muslim students in prayer. Carver though, still has a special recess to allow 100 Muslim students to pray.

"The goal of Islamists is the application of Islamic law," stated Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank.

Pipes sees these requests as part of a movement to force the public towards Islamic law. Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim and chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, states that he is concerned about the accomodations being made so far. The AIFD promotes the seperation of mosque and state and Jasser feels that the unusual accomodations at the cost of everyone else does not fall on the side of pluralism.

Many critics see a double standard and believe this is an organized attempt to push public conformance to Islamic law. Barry Lynn. of Americans United for the Seperation of Church and State has stated that the laws are murky as to whether these expressions of faith are legal. The ACLU states that overt symbols like a crucifix aren't legal but it still has to be proven if foot baths and prayer rugs fall into that category as well. The ACLU, which has often sued schools for permitting prayer, is waiting to see what policy Carver settles on before choosing a plan of action. Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel at the Thomas More Law Center, is more concise in stating that he believes what the school officials are doing is giving Muslim students religious benefits that they don't give to any other religion right now.

Those who advocate these accomodations believe that they are legal, such as Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council based in Los Angeles. He has stated that the whole issue he believes, is to provide for a religious foundation for those who are observant while respecting the seperation of church and state. He cites the examples that many schools the Christian and Jewish sabbaths and allow Jewish students to miss tests on religious holidays.

"If you start carving out time in the school day that you would not do but for the need to let students pray, then it begins to look like what you're trying to do is assist religion." stated David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU in San Diego CA.

In our universities there is supposed to be an environment that fosters exploration and developement and if the installations that are being made are equal in kind to other facilities offered for other religions, I believe they are fair. If in fact, they are being made while other religions on campus are not afforded the same benefit, I believe they are what others state.....a test to see how far Muslims can push Islam in the public school system.

In the cases of special accomodations made for prayer, such as at Carver. I believe they are very wrong. While respect is given to Christian and Jewish holidays within the public schools K-12, they do not allow the overt symbols of those religions on school grounds. In fact, various institutions have been sued for allowing a "moment of silence" which was seen as a time set aside for prayer by some, "forcing" children to say the pledge of allegiance with the word God included, removal of religious symbols from government buildings during the holidays and various attempts to remove the word God from our currancy.

There are numerous fine schools available for parents who feel a need to include religion in their child's schooling. While that choice of a school is generally not free, I believe that is where those parents should go, not demand special accomodations within the public school system. Expecting or demanding our public schools set aside special times for Muslim children to pray while banning all others from the practice is not a seperation of church and state.

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