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Friday, 12 July, 2002, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK
Legal row over teaching of Islam
US flag and church candles
Religion in education is a burning issue

A California school district has denounced moves by a Christian law firm to sue it for allegedly violating the US constitution by teaching the Islamic religion to students.

The lawsuit has been filed in a federal court in San Francisco by the Thomas More Centre for Law and Justice, based in Michigan.

The centre is acting for two sets of parents whose children attend the Excelsior School in the Byron Union School District, a hundred miles east of San Francisco.

The suit alleges that students were required to take part in various exercises that violated their First Amendment rights.

No Bible readings

It also claims that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was infringed when the district used taxpayers' dollars to teach students how to practice a religion - in contravention of the separation of church and state rule.

Richard Thompson, who is the executive director and chief counsel for the Thomas More Centre, said: "Our Supreme Court has said that public schools cannot have children read the Bible, recite the Lord's Prayer, have a moment of silence for prayer, or display the Ten Commandments - and it is our opinion that Byron school district violated the law when it taught Islam the way it taught it."

Peggy Green, who is the superintendent for Byron, said: "We do not teach religion, we teach about religion in the context of world history.

"And that's the issue. How can you teach about Islam or even the Renaissance without talking about the religion of the time, because it included everybody?

"Separation of church and state was not thought of then."

'Own agenda'

According to the lawsuit, the centre claims that 125 students selected a Muslim name, learned Islamic prayers, staged make-believe pilgrimages to Mecca, fasted during lunch to simulate the fasting done during the holy month of Ramadan, dressed in Muslim robes, and used phrases such as the Arabic for "God is great".

Mrs Green denounces many of these allegations as false and has criticised the action as "grandstanding by an organisation pushing a Christian agenda of their own".

She said no child was required to dress in robes, to fast, or to spout religious phrases.

She said the programme was part of California's curriculum standards which were approved by officials in 1998.

Richard Thompson says just because it is part of a state curriculum does not mean it "passes constitutional muster".

"Is this education or indoctrination?" he said.

Fasting during Lent

"You can teach about religion, but this crossed the line in actually forcing children to participate in religious practice.

"Schools would never tolerate teaching Christianity this way. Just imagine the outcry if students were told they had to pray and use such phrases as 'Jesus is the Messiah' and fast during Lent."

The course on Islam is one of 11 units of a social studies class called World History and Geography: Medieval and Early Modern Times, which is taught all over California.

Byron School District maintains that it has never had any complaints from the parents involved in this lawsuit.

Community support

Mrs Green said it had been inundated with calls of support from parents and local religious leaders who she said were "furious" about the lawsuit.

"We've had tons of support from families saying this is absolutely ridiculous.

"We teach about Judaism and Buddhism and Christianity as it relates to the countries across the world.

"Our local religious leaders have been very supportive of how we teach Christianity and how we introduce other faiths in the context of history."

The families involved in this legal action are refusing to comment and all enquiries are being handled on their behalf by the Thomas More Centre, which is working for free.

It says its mission is to defend the religious freedom of Christians.

Mr Thompson said that if the court in San Francisco refused to hear the case the centre would pursue the issue to the highest court in the land.

See also:

28 Jun 02 | Americas
27 Jun 02 | Americas
03 Mar 01 | Mike Baker
26 Feb 02 | Americas
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