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Maryland school allows Muslim students to leave class to pray

In its attempt to accommodate Muslim students' religious needs, a Maryland high school now allows those students who have parental permission and good grades to leave class every day to pray.

According to The Washington Post, about 10 Muslim students at Parkdale High School in Riverdale, Md., leave class for about eight minutes every day to pray. They are part of the school's Muslim Students’ Association, Principal Cheryl J. Logan told the Post, adding that another student is hoping to raise his grades so he can join the others.

Logan told the newspaper some teachers became upset when Muslim students began praying during the school day, but she explained that schools have to accommodate students who wish to practice their faith.

“I’ve been real happy with how we’ve been able to deal with it without it becoming an issue,” Logan told the Post.

While schools may restrict how students exercise their religious rights, the First Amendment guarantees they can practice their faith on school property.

Guidance provided by the Department of Education stipulates that schools "have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided that schools do not encourage or discourage participation in such instruction or penalize students for attending or not attending.

"Similarly, schools may excuse students from class to remove a significant burden on their religious exercise, where doing so would not impose material burdens on other students," the guidance reads.

Courts have for years tried to determine when accommodation crosses the line into unconstitutional endorsement of religion, said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. The question of accommodating the Muslim faith, however, is relatively new.

"Public schools can't play favorites with religion," Mach said. "Whatever schools do to accommodate students' beliefs, it must be done fairly, equally and not to promote any one faith or encourage religious devotion in general."

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, said he has so far heard no complaints from Muslims about the school's policy. 

"We’re definitely in favor of the policy of allowing Muslim students or students of any faith to hold student-initiated and student-sponsored prayers, as the Constitution guarantees," he said.

If, however, the school begins to strictly enforce the high grades policy and denies a student who is struggling with his or her grades to pray, the organization would take a stand against that practice, Hooper said.

"As a parent, it sounds like a good idea, but I’m not sure that it conforms with what is required in terms of allowing students to pray in schools," he said. 

Some schools that have introduced similar policies to accommodate Muslim students have met challenges in the past. A San Diego, Calif., elementary school that had set aside prayer time stopped doing so after it received criticism. The school ultimately reconfigured the schedule so Muslim students could pray during lunch.

Hooper said his organization has dealt with similar cases in the past but managed to reach a compromise with the schools.