Public school opens up rooms for Muslim prayer during Ramadan. Atheist group calls it ‘reasonable.’

Public school opens up rooms for Muslim prayer during Ramadan. Atheist group calls it ‘reasonable.’
A public high school in New York state has made available two vacant rooms so Muslim students can pray during Islam's holy month of Ramadan. An official with the Freedom From Religion Foundation — an atheist group that frequently calls out towns and schools when it says they promote Christianity — called the school's move a "reasonable accommodation." (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A public high school in New York state has made available two vacant rooms so Muslim students can pray during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan.

Donald Flynt, principal of Clifton Park’s Shenendehowa High School — along with other school administrators and faculty — had invited a local imam to a meeting to learn more about the Muslim religion, the Saratogian reported. Afterward, Flynt made the move to open up the rooms from May 27 to June 24, the paper said.

“[Ramadan is] a month long and there are certain obligations that must be done in addition to praying,” school district spokeswoman Kelly DeFeciani told the Saratogian. “Principal Flynt wanted those students who observe Ramadan to be able to stay in school and also fulfill their religious obligations.”

Use of the rooms is not limited to any student’s faith, the paper said.

DeFeciani told the Saratogian that “making the rooms available is part of our effort with cultural proficiency. We are trying to get people to understand all different cultures. We want to make the school conducive, so all students can learn, can feel accepted, and feel understood. With this effort, this group can meet both their educational and religious obligations. In this case, it’s the principal’s decision. He’s doing it to meet the needs of his students.”

Flynt sent an email to the homes of all high school students about the move. According to WRGB-TV, the letter reads in part:

The school district recognizes the diverse religious backgrounds and values represented in the school community and the importance of being sensitive to the needs of all students and personnel.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. From Saturday, May 27 through Saturday, June 24, 2017, Muslims around the world spend the daylight hours in a complete fast. In addition to fasting, prayer occurs on a daily basis for practicing Muslims. This can be challenging in today’s modern public high school.

In an attempt to make reasonable accommodations for students and employees to meet their personal religious obligations, room 65 in High School West and room 109 in High School East have been set aside so students can incorporate this important aspect of their religion into their daily activities while at school.

Please note that this is voluntary and student-initiated. Involvement of school employees is a non-participatory capacity. The allowance of this does not materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder and co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation — an atheist organization that calls out towns and schools when it says they promote Christianitytold the Times Union that prayer in school is legally allowable if it’s an accommodation and doesn’t disrupt the school day.

“Our first impression is that this is a reasonable accommodation,” Gaylor told the Times Union regarding what’s happening at Shenendehowa High School. “It is important that schools not get carried away and it’s always worth monitoring. Principals should beware appearing to promote prayer or praise it in students.”

Gaylor told the Times Union that since fewer than 1 percent of American students are Muslim, questions about Ramadan rarely come up.

DeFeciani cited sections from the New York State Education Law Book, which references a link on the U.S. Department of Education website, the Saratogian said, adding that part of the information provided states:

…not all religious speech that takes place in the public schools or at school-sponsored events is governmental speech. For example, “nothing in the Constitution … prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day,” and students may pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other conversation or speech.

One mother — who asked the Times Union to keep her anonymous over concerns her children could be harassed — disagreed with the move at the school: “If I was [sic] a Devil worshiper, would I get a room?”

Imam Abdul-Rahman Yaki of the Islamic Center of the Capital District told the Saratogian that designating rooms for students during Ramadan will help them fulfill obligations, particularly noontime prayers.

“Ramadan is much more than fasting,” Yaki told the paper. “It’s one part of the package. There is the obligation of prayer, there are five, and recitation of the Quran is encouraged at this time because that’s when it was first revealed. There are other obligations also.”

The imam told the Sartogian that such a space for teenage Muslims is crucial because that’s when the teaching of the Quran becomes serious: “These are the years when they are taught to take responsibility.”

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