A Christian parent in West Virginia has voiced outrage after his seventh-grade daughter brought home a packet from her social studies class this week that includes a page asking students to practice writing the Islamic declaration of faith in Arabic calligraphy.
Rich Penkoski, a conservative Christian who runs an online ministry called Warriors for Christ, contacted Principal Ron Branch at Mountain Ridge Middle School in Gerrardstown to voice his concerns about the packet on Islam that was given out as part of the class' world religions unit.
While the packet went into detail about the history of Islam, the prophet Muhammad and the five pillars of the religion, Penkoski was most upset with a worksheet toward the end of the packet that instructs students to practice calligraphy by copying the Arabic form of the Shahada by hand.
The Shahada, one of the pillars of Islam, is the Islamic profession of faith that declares belief in one true God and Muhammad being a messenger of God.
"I saw the assignment of writing the Shahada in Arabic. Their excuse was calligraphy," Penkoski told The Christian Post. "I was like, 'Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!' First of all, calligraphy was invented in China 3,000 years prior to Muhammad. The fact that they were trying to get my daughter to write that disturbed me.'"
"I said, 'That is not happening. My daughter is not doing that,'" Penkoski continued. "My daughter told me that if she didn't do the assignment then she was going to get a [detention] slip."
After contacting the school, Penkoski was told that the teacher, Katherine Hinson, did not actually assign the packet to the class to complete for a grade but simply printed it out and gave it to the class as an optional reading. However, the Penkoskis claim that the school is only now saying it is optional because they raised concerns.
"Why would they print all that out and then tell them they don't have to do it?" Penkoski asked. "When they were given a packet [on Christianity], which didn't go into that much detail, they did have to write an essay. So you're telling me they don't have to do it now that I called you on it? It makes no sense and it is not consistent."
Penkoski also claims that on Tuesday, the day after he voiced his complaint, his daughter came home with the same exact packet. Although certain areas of the packet were crossed off this time, Penkoski's daughter, Brielle, contends that the calligraphy assignment was still given to the class.
"The teacher told them they have to do that one," Rich Penkoski asserted. "I called the principal again."
"I said, 'This is not OK in asking my kid to write down the Shahada.' The teacher happened to walk-in and said she made it an option and that the kids didn't have to do it. My daughter conflicted that story and said, 'No, that is not what was said.' What was said was, 'Do the assignment and if you want to learn more about the Quran, ask your parents.'"
Hinson did not return a request for comment before press time. However, Branch told CP in an email Wednesday that the Shahada calligraphy was not officially assigned to students.
"There were two calligraphy activities in the packet. One involving the Shahada and one that is just English letters in which the students can write whatever they want in calligraphy," Branch explained. "The teacher told the students that they could do these activities if they wanted. I told Mr. Penkoski that the calligraphy activity was optional, but was not assigned. They are reading through the packet as part of the study. The teacher has told her class several times that this is a study of world religions and that she is not trying to advocate for any religion over another. She has told her class that if they had questions about religious beliefs, that those conversations should take place with their parents."
Branch assured that there are no repercussions for students who do not complete the activity.
However, Brielle Penkoski said that she left Monday's class after the packet was first handed out thinking that the packet had been assigned because past assignments on Christianity and Judaism were required and not optional.
According to Penkoski, Hinson explicitly assured the class on Wednesday that the packet was optional and that she is not advocating for any religion.
"If it was optional, then why was there no option for comparison for Judaism and Christianity? There was no option to recite any of the Lord's Prayer and Ten Commandments. There was no option to write Hebrew," Penkoski said. "Why is it only Islam?"
"I am curious why the other ones were not optional and the Islamic one was optional," he continued. "It only seemed to be optional after I raised objection."
The study of world religions is part of the school district's seventh grade curriculum every year. In addition to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, students will also be taught about Hinduism and Buddhism.
Branch added that each religion has received "equitable treatment" throughout the world religions unit.
"The units on Judaism and Christianity were about a week-and-a-half. Each of the other units should take about a week. Jesus was taught," he said. "The students read the chapter in our textbook that discusses Christianity's belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and salvation. They also discussed the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper and Jesus' Betrayal, the Trinity, and the Lord's Prayer, among other topics."
Brielle Penkoski told CP that she doesn't recall there being any instruction on the Lord's Prayer.
"We did [the unit on Christianity] over a week and two days. We watched two different videos. We didn't finish them. They taught a little bit about Moses and the Ten Commandments, Peter and Paul," she explained. "We learned about the Israelites and how they are being persecuted by the Romans. We were told about the Jews and told a little bit about Jesus."
Penkoski shared with CP other packets that were handed out to the students on Christianity and Judaism.
"Notice no Bible verses, no reciting the Ten Commandments or the Lord's Prayer," he objected, adding that the Islam packet contained passages from the Quran. "[There's] no practicing writing in Hebrew as compared to the Islamic packet."
"It's one thing to talk about secular, but they cross the line with Islam because they went from the secular aspect of it to the faith aspect of it," he continued. "Let's be honest, if they had come home with the Lord's Prayer, we would have atheists suing all over the place."
No answer was provided to CP as to whether the packet has always been included in the seventh-grade curriculum or if it was provided by the teacher. According to the packet, it was created by Teacher Created Resources Inc., a leading publisher of educational materials.
After finding the full version of the packets online, Penkoski has reason to believe that sections detailing the Bible and other faith aspects of Christianity had been removed from the packet his daughter received in class.
This is not the first time that Penkoski has butted heads with the school. Last September, Penkoski complained after Brielle's homeroom class was shown a suicide prevention music video that, in one scene, shows two male high school students in bed together and a sex toy.
The Berkeley County School District later admitted that the video shown in the class was not the same one approved by the district and that the video that was shown had "unapproved content."
Penkoski's complaint about the Islam packet comes as parents in other parts of the United States have also objected to components of Islam being taught in their children's public schools as part of world religion courses and units.
In 2015, parents in Tennessee voiced outrage with the Maury County School District after their seventh graders were instructed to write "Allah is the only god" when learning about Islam's pillar of creed.
According to the conservative legal group American Center for Law and Justice, over 7,000 Tennessee residents complained about the assignment.
In 2016, a Maryland couple sued a school district claiming that it was guilty of indoctrinating students when teaching about the five pillars of Islam by "requiring" them write out Islamic statements of faith.
Earlier this year, a parent filed a lawsuit against a school district in New Jersey after students were subjected to videos that she claims featured Islamic propaganda and even encouraged conversion to Islam in their World Cultures and Geography class.