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Public schools grapple with Muslim prayer

A San Diego school adjusts its schedule to accommodate Muslim worship.

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When afternoon recess comes at an elementary school on the outskirts of San Diego, some students rush out for a quick game of hopscotch, while others gather in a room for Muslim worship. Like a growing number of school districts around the country, San Diego's is changing its ways to meet the needs of its Islamic students. Here, a controversy with constitutional overtones erupted: In accommodating Muslim students, is the school unfairly promoting religion?

The school's policy "presumes that Christians are less religious and less inspired to worship and praise the Lord and come together," says Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute. He is asking the school district to set up special rooms where Christians can pray, too.

This outcry, and others like it from conservative commentators and attorneys, suggest that the whole matter may land in court. Potentially at issue is to what extent actions taken by a public school to accommodate special religious needs of some students might require similar allowances for other students.

For now, about 100 students in the Arabic language program at Carver Elementary School are finishing their first year under a daily schedule that gives them a 15-minute recess period in the afternoon, about an hour after lunch. Many of the students are Muslim and transferred from an Arabic-language charter school that folded. Carver Elementary revised its schedule so the students would have the option to pray at the specific times ordained by their religion, says attorney Brent North, who represents the school district. A teacher is present to watch the praying children but cannot lead or take part in the observance.

A question of faith?

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