Prince George's County School Official: Students Have Right to Pray In School

Community News

From right, PGCMC head Jamil Johnson, whose daughter attends a public school in Prince George's County; Daryl Williams, Prince George’s County Public School (PGCPS) Chief of Student Services, and CAIR-MD attorney Azim Chowdhury discuss issues surrounding Muslim public school students praying in school. Photo by Muslim Link.

In the cafeteria -- in front of 500 students-- Hassan,* a tenth grader at Bowie High, was ordered by his principal to remove his kufi while on campus. Despite Hassan’s attempts to explain why he was wearing it, he was still asked to remove it.

24 hours later, as he walked down the halls, an administrator took it off his head, again. His parents, Kareem and Zaynab, visited the school and reluctantly sent in written permission. Reluctant because they believe that it is his constitutional right to wear religious attire and that he does not ‘require permission to practice his religion as he sees fit.’

A few days later an assistant principal asked him to remove the cap --again-- and threatened to write him up, leaving Hassan upset and embarrassed.

“I take my religion very seriously,” says Hassan’s mother,  Zaynab Arenas. She is frustrated by her son’s principal. As a parent she is happy that her son is taking interest in his religion, and thinks incidents like these embarrass and demean Muslim young adults. “They are often exploring [at this age] and expressing their identity.”

‘Do I have the right to wear the hijab at school? Can I pray Jumu'ah in congregation while in school?’ Many students have these questions and the Prince George’s County Muslim Council’s (PGCMC) panel on the First Amendment attempted to answer these questions at the brand new library in South Bowie on Tuesday, September 24, 2013.

More than sixty people representing families, masajid and organizations attended the event, including high school students. According to the PGCMC estimates, there are approximately 10,000 Muslims in PG County.

Jamil Johnson, who heads PGCMC, is a parent from Eleanor Roosevelt High School.  PGCMC is an active, ‘non-profit grassroots organization whose mission is to promote the involvement of Muslim residents in the civic and political affairs of the county.’

When a number of students approached the council in the summer of 2012 and relayed their concerns about not getting permission to leave campus to attend Jumu'ah or to hold prayers on campus, the council investigated. They found unequal levels of accommodations for Muslims to practice across the county. “PG county has its rules in this regard. Parents need to know [especially immigrants] who aren't aware of the rules,” said Johnson.

His daughter Naadira, a student at Eleanor Roosevelt, also spoke at the event. She shared her positive experiences at her school regarding hijab and prayers. Her father had met extensively with the principal about various issues. A former Roosevelt High School student in the audience applauded the work being done and recalled that when he attended the school from 2005 to 2009 his school mates were not allowed to host Jumuah on campus. He was delighted that things had changed over the course of the past few years.

Daryl Williams, Prince George’s County Public School (PGCPS) Chief of Student Services, took personal time out of his schedule to lay out the policies of the PGCPS in regards to practicing religion in public schools. In accordance with federal law, students have a right to enjoy substantial and meaningful freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion and PGCPS administrative policies adhere to the law. He said that students have a right to individual and group prayers during a school day.

He pronounced that public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.

Williams informed the audience that students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.

Head dresses can be worn for religious reasons with acceptable documentation in PG County (as some students tend to wear kufis etc. as a fashion statement). At Bowie High, this is a verbal and unwritten policy, according to Hassan’s parents.

Naadira shared that at her school, students could not switch in and out of headgear, once given permission to wear it for religious purposes.

The only religious exemption from a mandatory school uniform policy in PG County is intended to ensure that students are allowed to wear religious attire, like a hijab, kipa, or turban.

Azim Chowdhury, a lawyer and civil rights director with Council of American Islamic Relations (Maryland chapter) explained that the First Amendment protects individuals from government interference with religious beliefs. Chowdhury also explained the Establishment Clause to the attendees. He said under the Free Exercise of Religion clause all people are free to practice religion.  Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none.

Students have the right to be excused from activities and class discussions, if these impinge on their religious beliefs, said Chowdhury.

Chowdhury advised attendees to explain Islamic concepts, such as the time limits of the five daily prayers to school principals while asking permission. Organizations such as CAIR-MD advocate on behalf of students and families. At the request of county residents, Chowdhury has spoken to the legal counsel at PGCPS to explain these concepts.

A parent from Charles County attending the panel asked whether getting federal funding diminishes these rights, as he was informed by the principal at his son’s school that his son could not be excused for Jumuah salah since the school received a federal grant. He was advised by both Chowdhury and Williams that federal dollars don’t prohibit the opportunity to practice, but that he should get in touch with the legal counsel in his school district.

Earlier this year Parkdale High School students’ permission to be excused from class for a few minutes for dhuhr prayers was revoked by the Board of Education based on out of state pressure from extreme anti-Muslim groups.

The Parent Teachers Association and the First Amendment Center asserts that ‘sensitive and thoughtful school officials may easily grant many religious requests without raising constitutional questions.’ According to its booklet designed for teachers in public school, ‘Muslim students, for example, may need a quiet place at lunch or during breaks to fulfill their prayer obligation during the school day.’  As long as honoring these requests is feasible, school officials should do so in the spirit of the First Amendment. The guide also says that the onus of monitoring adherence to a religious activity is on the parents and not the teachers.

Williams points out that as long as the requests are not disruptive.  Disruptive is the key word. What qualifies as disruptive is left at the discretion of individual principals. ‘My experience has been that it is a school by school decision,” he said. Principals decide each school's established standards.

Williams also said that it is the county's responsibility that incoming principals are trained and receive information about these rights.

Many principals are not informed of these rights or don’t know how to implement them. They misunderstand the the clause on separation of church and state and see granting permission as equivalent of support to a particular religion. Parents have to learn to assert their rights.

Johnson also expressed that parents should ask “how can we help the school system?”

Imam Azzari attended the event with many from his congregation. He often has to write letters to the school asking permission on behalf of students. Imam Azzari brought up that parents also have to work with principals as there is a dearth of qualified khateebs for Jumuah, and some principals whom he has met with, have relayed concerns about hosting speakers who may have extreme views. Cautioning the audience not to get emotional, he urged them to work with the schools.

Another point brought up was that student religious groups such as the Muslim Students Associations have the same right of access to school facilities at public secondary schools as enjoyed by other secular student groups.

Students may distribute literature, advertise their events, use the PA system and bulletin board and other school facilities in the same way other groups use.

Katrina Weaver, a staff member from PGCPS, expressed her concerns about discrimination faced by Muslim staff members while working in the school district. Other attendees also brought up concerns about bullying and staff harassment to Williams.

Attendees noted that the PG County Muslim community would have benefited greatly if imams and leaders from other masjid communities had attended.

“This is a good, first start,” says board member Kareem Abdus-Salam, ”we don't run away from the issue, despite the environment; we have to deal with the issues, with hikmah (wisdom). Allah will allow us to prevail.”

A beginning of a partnership between the community, county and schools emerged by the end of the event, which is beneficial for all involved.

*name changed to protect privacy