In Green Bay, Wis., the local school district is making an effort to accommodate Muslim students' prayer schedules without interfering with classes or the Constitution. But what school officials consider a testament to religious freedom, others consider a form of special treatment that Christians do not enjoy.
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An influx of nearly 200 refugees – many of them Muslim – from war-torn Somalia into the Green Bay area is what has led to the accommodations, which include allowing Muslim students to use empty classrooms or alcoves during recess to pray. Under federal law, public schools cannot deny the right to prayer to any student. Some Muslims pray five times a day at specific, designated times.
"The issue of students praying in school has come up a number of times this year, in part because we have an increasing number of students who practice the Islam faith, many of whom are Somali students," said Barbara Dorff, student services director, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "It is our responsibility to find a private place for these students to pray and to allow them to pray."
In addition, Dorff says that allowing students to pray is really a simple matter that does not interfere with the school day or the education process.
"[It] takes maybe three to five to 10 minutes, not very long at all. They can get up from class, they don't disrupt the class, do their prayer, go back to class," said Dorff, according to WLUK-TV.
Principal Mark Flaten told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that the students miss “a minute or two of instruction” and that “the loss is minimal." "They don't miss any classes, and we have rooms that aren't utilized at that time.
He continued: "We accommodate them, but I don't think it's any different than how we accommodate other students, like someone on crutches, in certain circumstances. It's the right thing for us to do, and I hope any school would do it."
Educators say that allowing Muslim students to adhere to their prayer schedule during the school day is equal to the privileges that Jewish and Christian students have, only adjusted to culture. For example, Jewish students are not required to come to school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and Christian students can pray around flag poles before class, and read the Bible during study hall.
However, some Green Bay residents do not agree with those comparisons. The Rev. Jon Westlund told WLUK that there should be a greater reciprocation for Christians.
"You might have to say, hey, those of you of the Christian faith, if you choose to observe during this time, the same thing, you can do the same thing. Some kind of equity needs to be there,” he said.
Despite some not agreeing that there is reciprocation, Dorff says that the accommodation her school district has made for Muslim students' prayer schedules is an example of what is so great about America.
"We were founded on religious freedom,” she said. “To me, it's all about the United States of America and constitutional rights and freedoms. We live in this country – I think we should be proud."