How to get religious accommodation in the public school system: a 6-step guide

 

By Sound Vision Staff writer

Does your child need a prayer room to perform Zuhr in during lunchtime? Does he need time off for Juma? Or do you want to convince a teacher or principal to give your daughter the day off for Eid-ul-Fitr?

Whatever Islamic obligation you want accommodated at your child's school, it must be done in a methodical, clear and proper manner.

Shabbir Mansuri is founding director of the Council on Islamic Education in Fountain Valley, California.

He provides tips and advice on how to get religious accommodation for your child.

Step #1: know the laws about religious freedom

Knowing what laws and regulations govern the issue of religious accommodation is crucial before attempting to reach the right authorities. It is also important to understand what is defined as a "reasonable limit" on religious freedom.

See Laws You Need To Know About for the specifics.

In the United States, one of the strongest arguments in favor of seeking religious accommodation for your child is former President Bill Clinton's 1995 statement of principles addressing the extent to which religious expression and activity are permitted in public school. This was given to every school district in the US.

Get the help of other officials if necessary to properly understand these laws. A good place to check with is The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. They have produced a booklet entitled A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools. You can call them at (615) 321-9588.

Step #2: get the support of a teacher

"[The first thing I would do is] arm myself with that piece of information and then set up a meeting with the principal of the school along with one of my favorite teachers at the school who will be very supportive, requesting that my son or daughter should be either permitted to [for example] go out to perform Juma prayer at a local Masjid and/or be allowed to perform Juma prayer along with other Muslim students on the school campus," says Mansuri.

Getting the support of a teacher is crucial. It indicates to the principal that the religious accommodation you are seeking will not interfere with your child's performance as a student.

Mansuri says that in most cases, these two steps are all that are needed to get
religious accommodation from your child's school.

However, if the principal refuses to grant the accommodation, step three will be necessary.

Step #3: leave a paper trail, but first, be really nice

"If you find the meeting is not going anywhere then leave a paper trail, meaning, write letters. But before I do that, I would try to do it in a very non-confrontational way by simply sitting down with the principal and a teacher," says Mansuri.

"Try to understand this process where I want to make sure this is not us versus them, but simply the notion of my exercising my constitutional rights in the most respected [way] with compassionate manners, leaving my ‘baseball bat'," he explains, referring to an approach that is harsh and confrontational.

Mansuri even suggests inviting the teacher and principal over for dinner as a gesture of goodwill.

Step #4: writing to the supportive teacher

"My first letter would be to my kid's favorite teacher to ask the person's advice," advises Mansuri. "The letter will be to request to meet with teacher, and it will indicate I want to discuss with you my child's religious needs and I would like to share with you what our president has instructed the teachers and schools to accommodate them." (See a sample letter to the teacher)

Following the meeting, a thank you letter to the teacher should be sent. It will also indicate you would like to set up second meeting with the school's principal, and ask the teacher if s/he would be kind enough to go with you to discuss the topics the two of you talked about in your first meeting (see a sample thank you letter to the teacher).

"This will leave two or three letters," notes Mansuri, but in each letter "the tone of my letter should be my bringing the information as politely as I can. (I am trying to) maintain my rights for the schools to accommodate my child's religious needs. So it's a non-threatening letter."

Step #5: meeting a second time with the principal

Before attending this second meeting with the principal and teacher, "I would also arm myself with the district's education code along with the state educational code as it relates to the topics that I'm going to discuss," says Mansuri.

This can be done by simply calling your district and the state office and asking them to give you the specific educational code that relates to the religious obligation you are seeking accommodation for. That office would fax you the information the same or next day.

Once again, Mansuri stresses that the approach in discussing the matter a second time with the principal should not be confrontational.

"While meeting with the teacher and/or principal, I'm not trying to win an argument by telling them how much I know but rather giving them a very clear understanding that while I understand my rights as a parent, I'm simply there to help them accommodate my child's needs that they are supposed to do anyway," explains Mansuri.

"Make it a win-win situation, not an us versus them situation, and that in itself is the message of Islam."

By this step, Mansuri says your child should have his/her need(s) accommodated.

Step #6: if necessary, repeat these steps with the school district’s superintendent

You can repeat the letters and meet with the school district superintendent if the principal still does not accommodate. The superintendent is responsible for all schools in a particular district. Once again, the approach must remain polite and non-confrontational.

Since the president's instructions were issued to districts, it is possible superintendents may be more familiar with them. This should mean your son or daughter will get religious accommodation with no further problems.

 



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