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CHILDS: “The first time these kids hear the word Islamic, I don’t want it to be tied to terrorism.”

Crayons and Qurans

Religion | Controversy over exposing Michigan second-graders to world religions raises questions about the role of the public school

Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

Michigan parent Mark Clifton was in for a surprise last December when his 7-year-old daughter came home from public school with an understanding of basic Islamic theology and a story about a nice older boy visiting her second-grade classroom to read a prayer from the Quran in Arabic. Troubled, Clifton complained to officials at Dorothy Miller Elementary in Canton, a school located just 25 miles west of the nation's highest concentration of Muslim immigrants in Dearborn. The grievance prompted genial assurances that nothing taught had violated the curriculum's cultural diversity guidelines.

Clifton was less than satisfied: "Quite honestly, I am shocked, appalled, and saddened that something like this can take place in a public school and be given the green light by school officials. Did I miss something here? If I were to walk into a public-school classroom and read from my Bible, the ACLU would be beating down my door."

Indeed, public-school efforts at Muslim accommodation throughout the country appear to operate on a looser standard than that applied to Christian expression (see sidebar). But that disparity raises an important question as to whether Christians should fight the inequity by quashing the public display of other religions or advocating for equal time. Don't all people benefit when secular political correctness is set aside in favor of open religious discussion?

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Jon Childs, the second-grade teacher responsible for Clifton's offense, believes so. For more than a dozen years, Childs has paraded older students and parents of diverse religious backgrounds into his classroom to share the tenets and practices of their respective faiths. He first conceived the idea when some students in his class felt left out during Christmas celebrations. Childs still reads to the kids from his collection of 'Twas the Night before Christmas children's books, but now seeks to balance his room with perspectives from multiple religious backgrounds.

On this particular occasion, a fifth-grade student at the school outlined foundational Muslim theology and shared a story central to Islam's prohibition of alcohol before delivering an Arabic reading from the Quran. At other times, Childs has invited Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and even Christians to make similar presentations from firsthand experience.

"The kids enjoy it and go home with a very simple and basic understanding," said Childs, a teacher for 34 years. "I'm not trying to say one religion or the other is correct. I never share my personal religious views with the kids."

But education in a perfect vacuum is impossible. Childs admits that his aim in exploring diverse religions is to illustrate what he believes is the common ground undergirding them. "At their root, all religions teach that we should be helping each other, and that's what I try to stress with the kids," he told WORLD. "Religion can be a unifying force if we stick to some of the basic things."

For many parents, such disinterested multiculturalism represents a dangerous worldview opposed to the exclusive nature of truth. And therein lies the problem: How can a secular institution like a public school teach effectively on world religions without taking sides or promoting a relativistic ethic void of value judgments? Should it even try?

Applying such questions to a second-grade classroom compounds the complexity. But Childs defends his approach on the grounds that opening students' minds to the virtues of pluralism at a young age might help dispel religious conflict and tension when they reach adulthood. "The first time these kids hear the word Islamic, I don't want it to be tied to terrorism," he said. "I hope that teaching a little bit about this now will help in the future when maybe they hear some bad things about Muslims or Jews and can remember that we talked about it in class and those kids seemed pretty nice."

Furthermore, Childs says that "tiptoeing around religion as if it doesn't exist" prevents sound history and sociology education: "It's a really important part of people's lives."

Nevertheless, Dorothy Miller principal Lynn Haire and district director of elementary education George Belvitch have discussed with Childs the possibility of changing his pedagogical approach to avoid future complaints. Of course, any real movement to prevent worldview collisions between teachers and parents hinges on a revolution for choice in public education.

Special privileges

As the number of Muslims in the United States continues to rise, public schools serving areas with large Muslim communities are wrestling with how best to accommodate the religious practices of their students. In a country founded without regard for Islamic law, such issues raise sticky questions.

Jews and Christians rarely face conflicts between religious observance and school requirements, given that weekly services fall on Saturday and Sunday for the respective religions. But for Muslims, Friday is the day reserved for mosque attendance and special prayer.

At Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Muslims are granted permission to leave class during fifth period on Fridays and return when services conclude at a nearby mosque. The school also provides students with a special room reserved for prayer throughout the day.

Unlike most prominent religions, Islam prescribes daily prayer at specific times. That requirement has prompted one San Diego elementary school to provide 15-minute breaks from class each afternoon, during which time students can either pray or read and write. Carver Elementary has faced considerable opposition for that policy, even fielding one unsubstantiated allegation that a school aide led Muslim students in prayer.

Despite such headaches and criticism, Carver has taken measures beyond prayer breaks to serve the 100 Somali Muslims on its rolls: The school has added Arabic to its curriculum, offers separate classes for girls, and has banned from the cafeteria menu foods that violate Islamic dietary restrictions.

Supporters of Carver's policies, most notably the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), say such actions adhere to laws requiring reasonable religious accommodation. Edgar Hopida, public-relations director for CAIR's local chapter, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the country is changing demographically and religiously and must accommodate things not traditionally accounted for.

That kind of language once again betrays CAIR's often exposed agenda to establish Shariah law in the United States (see "A veneer of moderation," Sept. 15, 2007). Though opposed to terrorism, the organization aims to use civil-rights laws and Muslim majorities in some areas to force Quran-based requirements on society.

Rather than fight CAIR head-on, the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based religious-rights group, has advocated that Carver extend its religious accommodations to Christians and Jews with dedicated prayer rooms in which pastors, priests, and rabbis could lead students in worship.

Elsewhere in the country, public schools in Dearborn, Mich., altered their holiday schedule this past December to make provision for Eid

Al-Adha, the Muslim holiday of sacrifice. And in Brooklyn, public-education officials have established an entire school rooted in Arab culture. The Khalil Gibran International Academy faced controversy even before its inception last September when founding principal Debbie Almontaser defended T-shirts from a local retailer with the slogan "Intifada NYC," a phrase denoting an Islamic uprising in New York. The school has since replaced Almontaser but continues to receive criticism for promoting Arabic segregation and stimulating Islamic nationalism.

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