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Jewish World Review Dec. 12, 2001 / 27 Kislev, 5762

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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The crushing double standard between the treatment of Muslims and Christian students -- PER usual this Christmas season, the lawsuits and protests over "religious" symbols in public places are flying. There's a group protesting a creche in a town center here, and opposition to a cross put up by private citizens on public property there. Heck, in Kensington, Md., officials even banned Santa from attending the local tree-lighting ceremony because of his "religious" significance.

It would seem that the folks behind these protests would then be aghast to learn that students in some public schools this holiday season are not only allowed to have organized prayers, but they are doing so during school hours and the prayers are being overtly facilitated by the school itself. Yet, interestingly, there has been little muss or fuss made about it, even less news coverage of it, and only the tiniest squeak concerning it - and no lawsuit - from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Maybe that's because the students being allowed to have organized prayer are Muslims in New York City public schools, during their monthlong holy period of Ramadan, which began Nov. 17. Special areas have been set aside at many schools for the Muslim students to pray, which they are called by their religion to do five times a day. (Other students cannot be barred from the same area.) And the Muslim students' schedules can be altered to avoid missing classes.

But of course no one is outraged - and no one should be. In fact, I think it's terrific.

Pointing out the crushing double standard between the treatment of Muslims and Christian students is almost offensively easy. As the New York Post reported, one Brooklyn high school allows Islamic students to "turn the auditorium into a makeshift mosque for their daily prayer vigil." At the same time, a Brooklyn intermediate school has just "painted over a playground mural dedicated to neighborhood youths who died because it featured Jesus Christ."

In public schools throughout the country, there is no Christmastime allowed at Christmas. No Christmas songs that mention anything religious, no manger scenes, in fact no "Christmas break." It's routinely called "winter holiday" now. And though Christians are told in Scripture to "pray without ceasing," the idea of making special arrangements for Christian students to organize prayer during school hours, on school property altered for that purpose, would seem absurd to most so-called civil rights groups. Not to mention being a source of legal action from them. Even if it was just for the Christmas season.

But pointing out such hypocrisy, and that the so-called "separation of church and state" doctrine is primarily a thinly disguised jab at Christianity, is obvious. What may not be so obvious is that the public schools' accommodation of Muslim students shows that public schools can - and should - easily accommodate freedom of religious expression in general.

For the record, I don't think school officials should organize prayers --- though it's because I'm more worried about the impact on the prayers than the impact on the schools. In any event, it seems to me that parents should be allowed to use vouchers in picking a school to which to send their children, deciding whether it will feature religious activity or instruction. That would obviate all these school-related "church and state" debates once and for all.

But, as long as many American children have no choice but to go to the government school to which they are assigned, it seems reasonable that schools should have to accommodate a child's constitutional right to freedom of religious expression (remembering that there is no equal guarantee that a child need never be offended). And "accommodation," while not necessarily meaning the setting aside of a room for prayer, should be interpreted far more broadly than allowing kids to gather for a religious purpose only long before or after school hours and only because the school is forced to do so under great duress, as is usually the case now.

In fact, many public school officials and so-called civil libertarians seem to fear the very idea of religious expression -- almost always focusing on Christianity -- in the public square and especially in the public schools. They seem to see it as inherently threatening. But it's clear that religious expression can be tolerated, even accommodated in the public realm, as it should be and without giving undo offense. The experience of the Muslim students in New York has proven exactly that.

Now, how can practicing Christians get to realize their same right to freedom of religious expression?

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2001, Scripps Howard News Service