FFRF weighs in on N.Y. public school Ramadan debate

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation would like to weigh in on the media storm generated by the special Ramadan accommodation for Muslim students at a New York high school.

The Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, N.Y., has reserved a room each in its two wings for students of Muslim background to pray during the month of Ramadan, causing quite a stir.

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

Our first impression, according to these facts, is that this is a reasonable accommodation. It is important that schools not get carried away, and it's always worth monitoring. Principals should beware appearing to promote prayer. Religious paraphernalia should not be left in public school classrooms or property. No rooms at a public school should be formally labeled "for Muslim students" or "prayer room," for example.

In this instance, Principal Flynt clearly identifies this as an accommodation, observes that it is student initiated and that it does not interfere with educational activities. It does not appear reserving these rooms would create any hardship for other students.

Muslims are less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, so some of these tensions are new to public schools. We think it's more apt to come up with an immigrant population. Often, over time, such families make their own accommodations to public school schedules. Ramadan is a floating observance and in some years will occur when schools are on a traditional summer break schedule. So this isn't necessarily an annual issue.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation evaluates any concerns or complaints over state/church infractions on a case-by-case basis, and if new concerns with this policy come forward, we would be pleased to look that information over. We have taken action in some cases involving the Muslim religion and public schools. It does not appear this practice rises to that level. We have a report form online.

"Finally, on a personal note, as a co-founder of FFRF, I believe, as JFK did, in 'an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,'" says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "I do not think Congress should have passed the Equal Access Act (which allows religious — or irreligious — clubs to meet in public schools that offer other clubs) or the Supreme Court should have blessed it. But the law in our country has evolved to consider these accommodations, and this seems like the best the school could probably do under those circumstances."

Photo by Din Mohd Yaman via Shutterstock

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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