Islamic Lessons In California Public School Cross Church-state Line, Charges Americans United

Seventh-Grade Class Asked to Adopt Muslim Names, Dress in Islamic Clothing, Memorize Islamic Prayers

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has contacted school officials in California, raising legal questions about a seventh-grade class in which students were asked to adopt Muslim names, dress in Islamic clothing and memorize Islamic prayers.

In a letter to the Byron Excelsior School, and the superintendent of the Byron Union School District, Americans United charges the religious exercises, part of an effort to teach students "about" religion, crossed the legal line and must be discontinued.

"Public schools are required by law to maintain strict neutrality on religious matters," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This project appears to have fallen well-short of neutrality."

In its correspondence with school officials, AU noted the importance of adhering to the law when offering objective, academic lessons on religious issues.

"While we think that teaching students about the world's religions, including Islam, is a laudable goal," AU's letter said, "it must be undertaken with sensitivity to other religions and non-religious traditions, and without any advancement or endorsement of the religious subject matter.

"Having students re-enact religious events, or engage in religious practices (even as 'actors') will generally cross over this line," the letter added. AU concluded, "We urge you to review your curricula on Islam, and other religions, to ensure compliance with constitutional principles."

The controversy over Byron Excelsior's lessons on Islam has quickly become a rallying cry for several Religious Right groups, many of whom have expressed indignation over the inclusion of Islamic teachings in a public school classroom. TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, for example, has called the activities an "outrage" and a "gross violation" of the law.

"It is ironic that the Religious Right would condemn religious lessons in a public school," concluded AU's Lynn. "I completely agree that these lessons appear to be unconstitutional, but I always thought Religious Right leaders wanted more religion in schools, not less. I guess this demonstrates that when they argue for more religion in the classroom, what they really want is their version of Christianity."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.