September 2007 Church & State | People & Events

A San Diego public school that became the focus of international attention after it agreed to set aside time for Muslim students to pray in class has reversed course.

Officials at Carver Elementary School had agreed to schedule a short break for prayer as part of the school day to meet the requirements of the Islamic faith, which calls for prayer five times a day.

School officials defended the practice as a recess that all students could use, but critics said it was tailored to meet the demands of Muslim students. Instead of the recess, the school will slightly alter lunch periods so students of any faith who want to pray voluntarily may do so at that time.

Voluntary prayer is legal in public schools, but school-sponsored religious exercises are not. Students of any faith may pray during free time, as long as the practice is non-disruptive.

Carver Elementary became a flashpoint for controversy in July, after a substitute teacher complained about some of the school’s prayer policies. The school had recently accepted a large number of Muslim students from a failed Arabic-focused charter school, and some charged that its policies were being altered to facilitate Muslim religious demands.

Several conservatives spoke out as well, asserting that Muslim students were being given rights denied to Christians. The story spread around the world over the Web, and the school received phone calls from as far away as the United Arab Emirates, reported the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Americans United addressed the controversy on several occasions. AU urged school officials not to carve out special prayer periods or set aside special rooms for prayer. Allowing students to pray at lunchtime if they want, AU said, is a good compromise that meets constitutional requirements.

An official with a U.S. Muslim group agreed with Americans United. Appearing on Fox News Channel’s “Big Story Weekend” July 29, along with AU Assistant Communications Director Rob Boston, Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council said, “It would be a huge disservice to all Americans if there was school-sanctioned prayer, no matter which religion was being represented…. Schools have a responsibility to provide the opportunity for students to take care of their religious obligations, but it certainly shouldn’t be school sanctioned.”

Meanwhile, another controversy over Muslim religious requests is brewing at the University of Michigan. School officials there have agreed to install special footbaths so some Muslim students can wash their feet before prayer.

The university said it would use infrastructure fees imposed on students, not tax funds, to pay for the footbaths and insisted the effort was merely intended to update the school’s plumbing.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn was skeptical, noting that the footbaths have no other use.

“Plumbing? You must be kidding,” Lynn told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s an after-the-fact justification for something that is being done for the purpose of meeting a religious demand. You start permanently changing your architecture for one religious group, you have to do it for all. After all, what’s the difference between a footbath used as part of a ritual and a fountain that can be used for a baptism?”