Across the country, the issue of prayer in public schools has long been contentious, but a Prince George's County, Md., high school principal believes she has found a way to accommodate Muslim students: She gives those with parental permission and high grades a pass out of class every day to pray.
At Parkdale High School in Riverdale, about 10 Muslim students get out of class for about eight minutes each day to pray together on campus, said Principal Cheryl J. Logan. Another student is working hard to raise his grades so he, too, can join the group of students, who belong to the school's chapter of the Muslim Students Association, she said.
When Muslim students began praying during the school day at Parkdale, Logan said, some Christian teachers got upset and told the students that "it was a Christian school." She said she explained to the students that public schools are not religious but are legally allowed to accommodate students to practice their religion in some ways.
"I've been real happy with how we've been able to deal with it without it becoming an issue," Logan said.
The issue of religious accommodation for Muslims in public schools is becoming an increasingly big subject around the country.
Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, said that the accommodations that Logan is providing to the Muslim students are "certainly permissible" under the Constitution, though probably not required.
Religious accommodations in public schools vary depending on state law, he said. Some states have passed laws that allow schools to "simply treat everyone the same way and not give exemptions or special accommodations for religious reasons."
Asked if Logan would have to accommodate any student who asked for class time off to pray, Haynes said that any school district "would be wise to treat everyone the same way."
Arguing that Islam requires daily prayer as a reason to accommodate Muslims and not other students is ill-advised, he said.
"And that's one of the problems with accommodation, of course," Haynes said. "Once you start down that road, then you really are in a bind."
Furthermore, picking and choosing which Muslim students can pray during class time may be allowable under the law, he said, but "I don't think that's a good idea."
In November, the Board of Education of Montgomery County, Md., told leaders of the county's growing Muslim community that it would be impossible to add to the school calendar an Islamic holy day as an official day off. There are Christian and Jewish holidays on the school calendar because it was determined long ago that even if class stayed open on those days, there would be too many students and teachers taking the day off to operate viable classrooms.