As junior Areeb Quasem raises his hands to begin the melodic call to prayer, the eight students sitting behind him on elaborately woven red carpets bow their heads. The students silently recite their salath, or prayer, in Arabic as Quasem reads them aloud. While such a scene would be typical in a mosque, this one occurs each Friday in room 131, where the Muslim Student Association (MSA) meets to pray.
Clubs at Blair such as the MSA and the Christian Club allow students to bring their beliefs to school. According to the 2004 Josephson Institute Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, 63 percent of students believe religion is "very important" in their lives. Some of these students have founded religious clubs, which are protected under the Equal Access Act of 1984. The act says that religious clubs, regardless of their message or viewpoint, have the same rights as other extracurricular clubs and must have equal access to public school facilities.
According to MCPS' policy on student rights and responsibilities, "a student may observe his/her religious practices in school, including non-school sponsored student prayer groups, unless these violate the rights of others or disrupt school activities." However, a recent court case, Child Evangelism Fellowship v. MCPS, called into question the right of religious organizations to disseminate information on school grounds. While religious clubs provide a sense of community for devout Blazers, the question remains as to how much religion is permissible - legally and ethically - in public schools.
Within the boundaries
According to Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America, religious clubs can exist in schools as long as they receive the same treatment as non-religious clubs. The school administration cannot endorse a certain religion or require schoolwide prayer, so all religious activities must be extracurricular.
Quasem, Blair's MSA president, explains that religious clubs exist to provide students with a comfortable environment to practice their religion and develop a sense of community by praying with others. According to Quasem, the purpose of Blair's MSA is twofold: First, it provides an outlet for Muslim students to express themselves and learn more about their religion. Second, it teaches non-Muslims about Islam in an effort to dispel negative stereotypes.
Blair's Christian Club has a similar purpose, according to its president, senior Thomas Dant.
The club, he explains, is a place for Christians and non-Christians to come together and discuss religion. While Dant says Blair is generally an open and accepting school, he feels that Christian students need a club where they can freely express their beliefs.
In both clubs, members pray during the meetings. At an October meeting of the Christian Club, the classroom was packed as junior Matthew Dant led a service. Standing up, the members bowed their heads as Matthew thanked God for His blessings and asking for His forgiveness.
According to Lauren Smith, communications director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, students have the right to pray during club meetings. They also have the right to pray during school hours as long as they do not disrupt other students. Both rights are guaranteed by the First Amendment.
While the MSA and Christian Club are primarily religious clubs, the Jewish Culture Club (JCC) emphasizes culture, rather than religion, according to its co-president, senior Kenny Coleman. Club members do not pray together at JCC meetings, although members are encouraged to do so independently, Coleman says.
The MSA, Christian Club and the JCC must be entirely student-led for them to be permissible under the First Amendment, according to Smith. A public school teacher or official cannot join or lead any religious activities. "The basic rule of thumb is that a reasonable student shouldn't think that any religious event is sponsored, supported or opposed by the school," Smith wrote in an e-mail.
Senior Jordan Turner, now vice president of the MSA, said he felt pressured to convert when he was approached by a Christian student in May 2005. At a time when Turner was still searching for religious direction, the student offered to "show him the way" to Jesus. Brown says that this practice, called witnessing, is permissible in school as long as it does not occur during class time. Although Turner supports religious clubs, he felt insulted by the encounter. He thinks people need to make their own decisions about religion and should choose to attend religious clubs on their own.
Discovering the right path
Sophomore Jennifer Collins attended her first MSA meeting last May and, surrounded by knowledgeable, accepting students, instantly felt at ease. Because of family problems, Collins was first introduced to Islam when she spent last January living with a Muslim family. The more Collins learned about Islam, the more interested she became.
When she felt ready to go to a MSA meeting, Collins had not yet converted, although she felt she soon would. Instead of pressuring her to convert, Collins explains, the MSA members reassured her that she would know when she was ready. As she listened to other members describe their experiences converting to Islam, Collins felt comfortable in the diverse environment offered by the MSA. A few months later, she converted.
Since her family is not Muslim, Collins does not have the opportunity to worship at a mosque, so she attends MSA meetings to fill that void with weekly prayer sessions. Within the MSA, Collins discusses complex issues, such as different interpretations of Quranic verses with her fellow club members, and she says they have always respected her opinions. Outside of the club, she has found that students are less accepting of her religion. During class discussions, she explains, she often has to defend Islam or explain her decision to wear hijab, or head scarf.
Thomas Dant feels that if there are school-sponsored sports teams as well as private club teams that students can join, the same should be true for religious clubs. A student may have a strong church community outside of school, Dant says, but the same can be true within school. Some of Dant's best friends are in Christian Club. "It's a family," he says.
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