Middle East studies in the News
Texas AG's Concerns Over Legality of Frisco High School's Prayer Room Called 'Publicity Stunt' by School District
by Valerie Wigglesworth
Frisco ISD responded tersely on Friday to the Texas attorney general's concerns about the legality of a prayer room at Frisco's Liberty High School that is often -- but not solely -- used by Muslim students.
Frisco ISD learned of the AG's concerns on Friday from the media about the same time a news release was sent from the AG's office along with a copy of a letter addressed to district Superintendent Jeremy Lyon.
The letter from Deputy Attorney General Andrew Leonie states that "it appears that students are being treated differently based on their religious beliefs," which would violate the First Amendment.
Lyon's letter in response, posted online late Friday on the district's website, suggests the concern "appears to be a publicity stunt by the OAG to politicize a non-issue."
The prayer room is open to any students and does get used by students of other faiths, according to the district's spokesman.
"Frisco ISD is greatly concerned that this type of inflammatory rhetoric in the current climate may place the District, its students, staff, parents and community in danger of unnecessary disruption," Lyon wrote in his letter.
The classroom is available to all students for 30 minutes a day during a teacher's regular planning period.
"It's open to everybody," said Frisco ISD spokesman Chris Moore. He noted that students of other faiths may use the room "to have a Bible study or go in there to pray or meditate or worship."
In its letter to Lyon, Leonie said his office's initial inquiry left several questions unresolved, so he decided to send the letter.
"Liberty High School's policy should be neutral toward religion," Leonie's letter reads. "However, it appears that students are being treated differently based on their religious beliefs. Such a practice, of course, is irreconcilable with our nation's enduring commitment to religious liberty."
The letter states that the district must ensure that the room is accessible to students of all religious denominations.
Moore said the district welcomes an open discussion about its prayer room but is not aware of any initial inquiry from the attorney general's office. Moore's call to the AG's office had not been returned as of 5:45 p.m. Friday.
When asked whether the AG's office had reached out to the district before sending the letter, communications staffer Jennifer Speller said the office is "letting our press release speak for itself."
Lyon's letter asked for documentation of all efforts by the attorney general's office to contact the district before it issued its press release. His letter also requested evidence of any religious group or individual requesting access to the prayer room as well as documentation from that office of any complaints.
The school has been providing space for students for about six or seven years after administrators learned that some Muslim students were leaving campus for several hours on Friday for prayer. Friday is the most important day in the Muslim faith.
In a video posted on the school's online news site Liberty Wingspan, high school principal Scott Warstler explained how the prayer room came about.
"I met with those students and a couple of the parents and suggested, 'Hey would you be OK if the students led the prayer here at school as a group, and we gave them a space to do that so they didn't have to be in a car traveling 30 minutes each way on a Friday missing an hour, hour and a half, of class?' "
Watch the video by posted by Liberty Wingspan here:
Student Marisa Uddin posted a story about Muslim students using the prayer room to the school's news site on March 3. Public media station KERA aired its own story about the school's prayer room and posted it online on March 7.
The AG's office referred to recent news reports in its press release on Friday.
"While applauding the superintendent's efforts to create an environment where students can freely practice their religion, the letter from Attorney General Paxton's office reminds the Frisco ISD that, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, 'one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another,' " the AG's office states.
Gov. Greg Abbott posted a Tweet on Friday afternoon, saying, "The Texas Attorney General is looking into the Public School Prayer Room issue many of you have questioned."
Frisco ISD, which has more than 56,000 students, is one of the fastest-growing school districts in the nation. In recent years, its population of Asian students has surged. In the 2010-11 school year, Asian students made up 12.68 percent of the district's population. In the 2015-16 school year, that population made up 20.85 percent of the student body, according to a study done for the district by the College Station-based demographic firm Population and Survey Analysts.
"The trademark of what makes a Liberty High so great is our diversity and how our students respond to the different cultures and diversity on campus," Warstler said in the video.
Moore said the prayer room is open from 2:05 to 2:35 p.m. each school day for any students interested. On Mondays through Thursdays, the room gets used by students - from a variety of faiths - who have lunch during that time. On Fridays, the prayer room is used predominantly by Muslim students, Moore said.
If students have class during that time, they can use the prayer room if they have a note from their parent citing religious reasons, Moore said.
That practice follows the guidelines from the Texas Association of School Boards. Schools are required to excuse students from class for any religious observances.
Other Frisco schools accommodate students' religious needs on a case-by-case basis, Moore said. He doesn't think any go as far as Liberty High does with its prayer room.
Moore said the district has received some emails and phone calls with concerns about the prayer room, but most of them have originated from people outside the district.
"There's nothing to indicate a more far-reaching concern," Moore said. "Our district and our parents are aware of it and accepting."
When asked about possible next steps, Speller from the AG's office said, "We won't know unless we're faced with that decision."Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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