By Simon Brown
Religious Right zealots are always griping when they think public schools are infringing on Christian students’ religious expression, but if there is even a hint that a Muslim student might be praying in school, they get very upset.
In the West Shore School District near Harrisburg, Pa., some parents have been getting pretty angry that Muslim children might be allowed to pray during school hours – even though it hasn’t even been confirmed that any students are actually praying.
The “controversy” apparently arose when a district parent was on WHP 580 with talk radio host Bob Durgin and claimed that a multicultural awareness training session at West Shore included a discussion of Muslim prayer in schools.
Durgin, a right-wing agitator and Bill O’Reilly wannabe, went on to do several shows on the topic, and apparently he touched a nerve with some listeners.
According to the Harrisburg Patriot-News, one woman who called the newspaper said she thought Muslim students had received special privileges. The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said students are forbidden from singing religious songs at holiday concerts.
“It’s accommodating one religion in lieu of all the others,” she said.
The newspaper reported that the holiday concert at Cedar Cliff High School in Camp Hill included “Ave Maria,” a medley of traditional Christmas carols and “In Dulci Jubilo,” a Christian hymn.
Another woman who posted about this issue on a Facebook page claimed students are “not even allowed to say God in school,” according to the Patriot-News. If that were true, it would violate federal guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Education.
In fact, the West Shore School District has not played favorites with Muslim students, as Leena Sharif, a Muslim, discovered last year. Leena, who was a freshman at Red Land High School in Lewisberry, wanted to pray five times per day at set times in accordance with Muslim tradition.
Leena asked if she could be excused from class to pray because she felt it would be a distraction to other students. A school guidance counselor told her she couldn’t.
Leena’s family decided not to fight the decision and instead withdrew her from school. She is now a cyber student.
Let’s keep one important point in mind here: The Supreme Court has only banned school-sponsored prayer, Bible reading and other devotional activities. Students have broad freedom to act on their faith as long as it doesn’t interfere with school activities or violate the rights of other students.
Americans United has always opposed coercive religious activities in schools, but we have no issue with individual students expressing their faiths as long as all students have the same opportunity to do so.
I’ve called the Religious Right hypocritical on a number of occasions, but this is about as bad as it gets. If Christian students were praying in school, the Religious Right would be applauding.
But when some students want to do the exact same thing the Right has advocated for, except those students pray to Allah instead of God, those same zealots throw a fit. That is pretty much the textbook definition of a hypocrite.
When it comes to prayer by individual students in public schools, it’s all or nothing. Either everybody gets to express their faith, or nobody does.