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Legal Protections of Religious Rights of Muslim Students
Religiously mandated practices for students are protected by the First Amendment, which upholds the right to freedom of religion. The First Amendment guarantees such religious rights as the right to wear religiously mandated clothing and observe religiously mandated dietary rules. It also guarantees the right of a student to engage in personal worship or prayer, so long as it is student initiated and does not disrupt classroom instruction. The Equal Access Act of 1984 further affirms the rights of students to initiate and participate in religious activities, such as religious clubs or even prayer services, as long as they are initiated and led by students. Students also have the right to inform others about their religion, subject to restrictions that the school may impose, the right to attend Friday prayers, and the right to be excused from school for religious holidays. To read more, go here.
As our nation grows increasingly diverse, it is important to understand and to accommodate the religious practices of all our students to the best of a school’s ability. The following are some common religious practices which may impact some Muslim students at school. While these are practices of a religiously observant Muslim student, it is important to remember that Muslims are not all the same and will manifest diversity of religious practice or lack of practice. So, it’s best to ask the student about their needs, instead of assuming what their needs are.
Islam prescribes five daily prayers throughout the day, a practice observed by many Muslims. The prayers take place during the following windows of time: dawn to sunrise; midday to late afternoon; late afternoon to before sunset; sunset to dusk; and after dusk. Before praying, Muslims are required to wash their hands, mouth, nose, face, arms, and feet, which they can do in a bathroom sink. During the prayer, Muslims quietly recite from the Quran and other prayers as they stand, bow, and prostrate themselves on a clean surface such as a prayer rug. The time required for washing and prayer is about ten to fifteen minutes.
The only prayer that may need to be performed during school hours is the noon prayer. The time period for the noon prayer varies throughout the year, but the time period generally begins between 12:15pm and 1:15pm and ends two to three hours later. It is mainly during the short winter months that the noon prayer falls during school hours.
For students who request a place to pray, an empty classroom or a room in the library are good options. Students may feel self-conscious praying in public, so privacy is optimal. While praying students are not supposed to respond to someone talking to them, so privacy is important for that reason also.
Friday Congregational Prayers
Additionally, some high school students may request to be excused for the weekly congregational prayer at a near-by mosque on Friday, from 12:15pm to 1:30pm. The right to perform the Friday prayer off school property is consistent with the First Amendment protection of religious freedom, including released time programs, unless there is a school board policy that prevents all students from leaving school for any reason.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Because it is a lunar month, it moves eleven days earlier each year on the solar/Gregorian calendar. Its beginning and end is determined by the sighting of the new moon. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from both food and drink from pre-dawn to sunset. Ramadan is also a time of increased devotion and moral conduct. While fasting is not required of young children, many Muslim children like to fast as a way of partaking in this special month and emulating their parents and older siblings. Muslim students continue to participate in school activities during Ramadan but will not eat during lunch time. Fasting students should be allowed to go to the library or computer lab at lunch. Students may also ask to be excused from strenuous activity, such as running, in P.E. Young students may also want to save a treat or snack from a party or birthday to take home and eat later. For more information on Ramadan, go here. For a digital presentation on Ramadan, go here. For a calendar of Muslim holidays and other important dates, go here.
Twice a year, Muslims celebrate two major holidays. The first holiday, Eid ul-Fitr, the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” comes at the conclusion of Ramadan and celebrates the successful completion of the month of fasting. The second holiday, Eid ul-Adha, the “Festival of the Sacrifice,” is celebrated at the time of the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca by Muslims who did not go on the pilgrimage. Muslims celebrate Eid, meaning “festival,” for a period of three to four days. The holidays are celebrated with new clothes and small gifts for children, congregational prayers, fair-like activities, visiting friends, and exchanging gifts. Both holidays also follow the lunar calendar, so the dates move eleven days earlier each year on the solar/Gregorian calendar and are determined by the sighting of the new moon. Adding the holidays to the school calendar and letting staff and teachers know about them are deeply appreciated. Muslim students generally take the first day off for each of these holidays. For more information on Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr, go here. For more information on hajj and Eid ul-Adha, go here. For a calendar of Muslim holidays and other important dates, go here.
Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol and pork or pork by-products. Pork by-products can include popular children’s sweets such as marshmallows or gummy worms made from gelatin that is pork derived. Some students may be very particular about this while others are not. Some Muslim students also follow the injunction to eat only meat and poultry that has been slaughtered in a specific manner, known as zabiha or halal, (literally meaning permissible), which is similar to the regulations about kosher meat in Judaism. In situations where halal meat is not available, vegetarian dishes, dairy, and fish products are good alternatives.
Both males and females are encouraged to dress modestly. Some Muslim girls wear hijab, a term used to refer to the religious head scarf or to the entire outfit which includes covering everything except the hands and face. Girls generally begin wearing hijab around puberty, but may begin earlier. Not all Muslim women or girls wear hijab, and if they do it may be their own personal choice or their family’s expectation of them. A girl who wears hijab may experience teasing, bullying, or ostracism from her peers, especially during a time when current events relate to Muslims. It is important that teachers and staff be aware of such problems and work to prevent them.
Out of modesty, some observant Muslim students may avoid touching the opposite gender, dating, or attending events such as school dances or prom. While there is no prohibition against interacting in class, some Muslim students may feel uncomfortable partnering with the opposite gender for a class assignment. In this case, assign them same-gender partners.
Muslim Americans are a growing part of our country and our schools. A better understanding of our Muslim students and their families will both enrich our own lives and make theirs easier. In our increasingly diverse and multicultural society, education, understanding, and tolerance are the keys to a harmonious workplace and society.