A Virginia public school system is grappling with questions over the proper role of religion.

Controversy arose after elementary school students in New Hope, Va., were asked to recite a Christian prayer at a mandatory school event on Wednesday. Donna Lewis, a retired teacher, repeatedly appealed to the “dear Lord” and “Heavenly Father” during the prayer, and thanked God for the construction of a new location for Cassell Elementary School. Video published by the Staunton News-Leader shows students with bowed heads and clasped hands during the prayer.

Augusta County School Superintendent Dr. Eric Bond told the News-Leader no one asked Lewis to deliver a prayer.

“Neither the principal nor Dr. Bond directed the speaker to deliver a sectarian message, and they were not provided an advance copy of her remarks for review,” he said. “The principal and Dr. Bond were not aware before the event began that this invited community member planned to deliver a sectarian message.”

As a former public school teacher, Lewis almost certainly knows school-sponsored prayer isn’t legally permitted at official events. But the News-Leader reports that there’s important context to her decision. Augusta County public schools were already mired in a controversy over religion in classrooms.

World geography students at Riverheads High School copied the Shahada, an Islamic prayer, as part of an Arabic calligraphy lesson. Most Islamic sects consider the Shahada to be one of the pillars of the faith; would-be converts recite it as a testimony of their new-found religion.

Teacher Cheryl LaPorte told press she took the assignment from a standard textbook on world religions, and the worksheet itself says it’s intended to demonstrate the “artistic complexity of calligraphy.” But that explanation hasn’t mollified local parents.

Kimberly Herndon told WHSV 3, an ABC affiliate, that she decided to keep her son home from school rather than allow him to attend LaPorte’s class. In a public Facebook note, she slammed the assignment as an example of “indoctrination.”

“I am preparing to confront the county on this issue of the Muslim indoctrination taking place here in an Augusta County school. This evil has been cloaked in the form of multiculturalism,” she wrote. Herndon later helped organize a community forum at Good News Ministries to air her concerns. There, she claimed the worksheet “was pure indoctrinate in its origin” and added, “I will not have my children sit under a woman who indoctrinates them with the Islam religion when I am a Christian, and I'm going to stand behind Christ.” Some parents have called for LaPorte to be fired.

The situation became so heated the school district ended classes early for the week.  In a statement on the district’s website, Bond announced that “based on concerns regarding the tone and content of those communications” the county sheriff’s department recommended the drastic move.

Admittedly, LaPorte’s lesson plan was problematic. A statement of faith could be studied as part of an objective course about world religions, but students can do that without writing it out. If students were expected to copy passages from the New Testament, Hindu scriptures or even Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion there would be obvious problems. If LaPorte wanted to help students understand how challenging calligraphy can be, there are other examples she could have chosen. 

Having said that, the reaction of some people in the community seems over the top. Herndon and some other county residents seem to be angry that students are learning about Islam at all. As a world geography teacher, it’s LaPorte’s job to teach students about world religions, and she’s well within her rights to include factual lessons on Islam. In fact, she’d do her students a disservice by neglecting it. Whether some people in Augusta County like it or not, Islam is a growing religion. We do our students no favors by keeping them ignorant of it or any other religious or philosophical system of belief.  

LaPorte and Lewis have provided Augusta County students and parents with a pair of fascinating lessons about the constitutionality of religion in public schools. The district’s challenge is to learn from this and make certain that when it comes to religion, it remains focused on legitimate instruction and doesn’t lapse into any form of proselytizing, directly or indirectly.