Muslims, Middle Schoolers, and Lawsuits

In May, Wellesley Middle School took a class field trip to see the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) in Roxbury. The curriculum had previously included field trips to a synagogue as well as performances of gospel music and lectures by Hindu religious leaders. As with most middle-school field trips, students must bring permission slips and parents are recruited as chaperones.

While the school had organized field trips to mosques before, this was their first trip to the ISBCC, which opened in 2009. The ISBCC is the largest Islamic center in New England, featuring an elementary school, an interfaith center, an exhibition space, and a morgue for Muslim burial services. Its weekly services are attended by Boston Muslims of 27 different ethnicities. It hosts visits from numerous youth groups and learning institutions, including Harvard.

But the ISBCC has also been plagued by controversy. Construction began in January 2004 amid allegations that Dr. Walid Fitahaihi, an ISB leader, had made anti-Semitic comments. In October of that year, opponents of the project formed the group, "Citizens for Peace and Tolerance" (CPT). The group's website tracks the "radical links" of several ISB leaders. In a maneuver that is now all too common, a handful of comments and financial connections are used to implicate an entire community center that serves thousands.

When an anonymous Wellesley mother who volunteered to chaperone contacted the CPT, she was asked to videotape the field trip. The tape was then edited and uploaded onto the opponent group's website in a ploy similar to those used against ACORN and Shirley Sherrod. The edited footage shows that after the students received a history lesson from an ISBCC representative, five students participated in the midday prayer, at least somatically, by bowing towards Mecca. The chaperone does not intervene but whispers the words "Oh my God!" in apparent horror.

To be certain, this scene was not ideal pedagogy and seems to reflect a lack of communication between school officials and ISB representatives. Generally, religious practitioners are not experts in the history of their own traditions or the constitutional distinctions between teaching and proselytizing. The task of the teacher is to incorporate the voice of the practitioner into a balanced and critical perspective of the course content. But the footage does not show the teachers––who are presumably licensed and competent––preparing students for their visit or debriefing them afterwards. In fact, it is impossible to discern what message students took from the field trip as their voices have been completely absent from the ensuing media coverage.

Now, attorney Robert N Meltzer has stepped forward, representing the anonymous mother and claiming that the field trip violated the students' First Amendment rights. He is quoted saying "We believe that a school cannot bring middle-school children to any house of worship. Period." Most jurisprudence concerning religion in schools debates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, rather than the Bill of Rights. Rather than arguing that the field trip represents government support of Islam, Meltzer is claiming that it violates the religious freedom of students not to set foot in a mosque. The fact that students chose to enter the mosque and participate in a prayer is irrelevant, it is argued, because middle-schoolers lack the autonomy to make such decisions for themselves. However this argument fails to address the fact that parents signed permission slips and were physically present when the five students participated in prayer.

Meltzer has announced that the lawsuit will go forward unless the school district agrees never again to offer field trips to places of worship. Regardless of the lawsuit's outcome, this will have a chilling effect for public schools across the country. This may be a local conflict, but the collateral damage is national education. The fear of lawsuits not only deprives students of a genuine multicultural experience in a curriculum increasingly dominated by standardized tests, but it also stymies religious literacy at a crucial time in our nation's history.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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