The Practice of Islam in Public Schools

Public schools in the United States can often seem hostile to Muslims.  Legally, however, this should not be the case.  Public schools, like other government institutions, are forbidden by the First Amendment from discriminating on the basis of religion and supporting or suppressing any particular religious belief.  This means that students in public do have religious rights in public schools.

One of the most common inquiries about religious rights in public schools involves acquiring space in which to pray.  If the school makes rooms available to student groups to meet during lunch, then they must also make a room available to Muslim students who request a room in which to pray Dhuhr.  But if the school does not allow other student groups to use rooms, it is not required to let students pray in a separate room either.  If Asr falls during the school day, school boards can, but are not required to, allow students out of class to pray.  If this affects you or your child, contact the local school district to find out their policy on the issue.

If students wish to leave school to go to a Masjid to pray Jummah on Fridays, schools cannot discriminate against them for this.  The school must treat that break as a religious holiday and an excused absence.  The student must be allowed to make up any tests or work that he or she missed, but it is their responsibility to make sure this happens.  This same policy applies to take days off for other religious holidays, such as the Eids.  Students also should be excused from strenuous physical activity during Ramadan, though sometimes schools require a doctor note.

Muslim students also cannot be forced to participate in activities that conflict with their religious beliefs.  For example, some Muslims feel it is shirk to say the pledge of allegiance or bow in a school-sponsored martial arts program.  In that circumstance, the student needs to participate and cannot be punished for it.

Religiously mandated garb, such as the hijab or long pants, must also be allowed.  Students are allowed to wear this type of clothing at all times, and cannot be forced to remove them.  Schools can, however, reasonably restrict the activities in which students can participate if it would put themselves or others in danger.  For example, students in loose-fitting clothing may not be allowed to take woodshop or metalworking classes since there is a possibility the clothes could get caught in machinery.

Of course, students also have the right to be free of harassment from other students and to be treated equally by faculty.  If other students are harassing Muslim students, this should be reported to the school administrators.  If they do not take proper action to prevent it from happening in the future, contact a civil rights group like CAIR, MPAC, or the ACLU.  Contact these same groups, or a private attorney, if there are problems enforcing your other rights as well.