Religious Freedom. Really?
Wisconsin school district supports Muslim prayer
by Diann Noles
Prayer is a precept critical to the Christian faith and a fundamental right protected by the United States Constitution. And yet many times those rights have been trampled on by those who wish to deny the role of Christ in American society.
Now, according to many Christians in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the rights of Christian students are again being challenged in a new way.
In what has been touted by the Green Bay school district as a "testament to religious freedom," Muslim students are receiving special accommodations to pray during school hours in school facilities. Mostly Somalis, these students are allowed to slip from class for five to ten minutes and pray – often in groups praying audibly – in empty classrooms or glass-enclosed alcoves, a privilege not offered to Christian students.
"The issue of students praying in school has come up a number of times this year, in part because we have an increasing number of students who practice the Islam faith, many of whom are Somali students," said Barbara Dorff, Green Bay school district student services director. "It is our responsibility to find a private place for these students to pray and to allow them to pray."
According to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act ("No Child Left Behind" Act), districts that receive federal funding may not have policies that prevent participation in prayer. But in some cases, such as the Green Bay school district, "prevent" and "special accommodation" appear to overlap. While district officials are quick to agree that student-led prayer is constitutional, it is unclear whether this prayer time is student initiated or requested by parents.
"We do it [pray] because our parents want us to," said Keller Elementary fourth grader Ayan Artan. "It’s important." According to school officials, they must bring a note from home to be accommodated.
School officials note that accommodations are made for Jewish students to remain home for religious holidays Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kipper, and Christian students may pray around the flagpole before school, pray over meals, and read their Bible during study hall. Students host Fellowship of Christian Athlete chapters, and may also attend Fields of Faith, an annual event where students from across the nation gather one evening to discuss their faith. However, these activities all take place during the students’ own time, and often away from campus, leaving parents and community leaders to object to the district’s position regarding leaving during class and providing a place for Muslim prayer.
"You might have to say, ‘Hey, those of you of the Christian faith, if you choose to observe during this time, the same thing, you can do the same thing.’ Some kind of equity needs to be there," Rev. Jon Westlund, senior pastor of Bay Evangelical Covenant Church, told FOX affiliate WLUK.
Interestingly, of the more than 20,000 students in the Green Bay school district, only a small minority are Muslim, with 170 Somali. Keller Elementary makes the accommodation for four students – two sets of two sisters who pray in an alcove, while West High School has made arrangements for a small group of Muslim students to leave class to pray in an unoccupied classroom. "They miss a minute or two of instruction; the loss is minimal," said Mark Flaten, West High School principal. "They don’t miss any classes, and we have rooms that aren’t utilized at that time."
While the controversy focuses on Muslim prayers, Christians are also told in God’s Word to "pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17), and to "continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving." (Colossians 4:2) Jesus also says in Matthew 6:6, "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
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