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Prayer Rooms Are Just One Way Public Schools Accommodate Students And Religious Freedom

Lara Solt
Special contributor to KERA
Classrooms or other areas designated for prayer are not that unusual in public schools. Legally, schools can make accommodations for students who want to practice their faith.

A classroom used as a prayer room at Liberty High School in Frisco got the attention of the Texas attorney general’s office this month. The office sent a letter raising constitutional concerns about the room. The Frisco superintendent called the letter a "publicity stunt" and said the prayer room has been in use for several years without complaints. 

Prayer rooms are just one way public schools in Frisco and across Texas accommodate students and religion. 

Tim Boyer was so unhappy about the prayer room at Liberty High that he went to a recent Frisco school board meeting and spoke his mind.

“Liberty High School is not a mosque. It’s not a synagogue. It’s not a tabernacle. It’s not a temple. It’s not a church,” Boyer said. “It is a school. It is a public school supported by taxpayers for the purpose of educating our children.”

The Frisco Independent School District has said it didn’t violate any state or federal laws by having a prayer room and that the room is open to students of all faiths.  

Marc Rylander, director of communications for the attorney general's office, issued a statement, saying the office had been in contact with school district attorneys. 

"They assured us ... that students of all faith, or no faith, may now use this meeting room during non-instructional time on a first-come, first-served basis for student-led activities," the statement said. "Religious liberty is a cornerstone of our society and we are glad that students at Frisco ISD may practice their faith in accordance with their beliefs."

It’s not clear how many public schools in Texas have prayer rooms or designated areas where students can pray, but they are in some schools across the state and country.

“You may hear it said sometimes that prayer’s been kicked out of public schools,” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services with the Texas Association of School Boards. “In fact, what has been determined by the courts is that schools can’t compel prayer.”

Baskin said prayer rooms in schools are acceptable and legal under the First Amendment. Schools can also give students time to pray, whether it’s during free time or a lunch period. They can give students passes to leave class to pray or leave campus for religious education.

“It’s a concept that courts have looked at for many years,” Baskin said. “It’s called 'release time,' and it’s the idea that in order to follow a tenet of faith, the student is briefly excused. It’s an opportunity to have an excused absence in order to follow a tenet of faith.”

'You may hear it said sometimes that prayer's been kicked out of public schools. In fact, what has been determined by the courts is that schools can't compel prayer.'

Time for prayer isn’t the only religious accommodation you’ll find in public schools. Students can wear a head covering, for example, or a schools can meet students’ dietary restrictions due to their religion. Baskin says all of this is OK as long as it’s not an “undue burden on the school.”

“There are students in Texas who’ve asked to be excused all day on Fridays, every Friday, in order to attend religious services on Friday and most districts have considered that an undue burden because of the amount of class the student would miss,” Baskin said.

Liberty High School established a prayer room in part because Muslim students were leaving school on Fridays to pray and were gone for about two hours. It's actually a classroom that's open to students when it's not being used for instruction. 

Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute in Plano, said the Texas attorney general’s office raises valid concerns. His legal organization focuses on religious freedom.

He said what he’s heard about the student prayer room at Liberty High also falls in line with what his group supports.

“It’s fine to have an accommodation, a place for students where they can pray as long as they’re neutral, as long as they provide the same accommodations for other students, other faiths,” Shackelford said. “That’s a good thing for everybody.”

The more common legal battles involving schools and religion, Shackelford said, are when schools try to shut down religious expression. He said some schools fear that they’re going to get in trouble if religion or religious expression happens in the school.

“The law is that we don’t want the government, you know, which is running the schools, to push religion or try to force anybody into a particular religion,” he said. “But to provide the students who have perfect freedom under the first amendment … to live out their faith.”

The Islamic Center of Frisco has released a statement in support of the school district’s efforts. The group said it was “astonished” the letter from the attorney general’s office came a day after the district’s interfaith breakfast with religious leaders.

'It's fine to have an accommodation, a place for students where they can pray as long as they're neutral.'

Saba Ilyas is a board member of the Islamic Center. She says people have been stopping by the Frisco mosque daily to ask questions about Islam.

“I have seen the dynamic of Frisco change. We used to be the only minority in our elementary [school] 10 years ago and now that’s not the case,” Ilyas said. “So the dynamic is definitely changing and what I’m seeing more are people who want to know and they’re reaching out.”

That face to face interaction, Ilyas added, is a better way to build understanding, rather than sending a letter.

Editor's note: This post has been updated with a statement from the Texas Attorney General's office.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.