LEWISTON — A national Muslim civil rights organization has filed a formal request with the Lewiston School Department to allow a middle school student to pray on school property. The group also wants Lewiston to modify existing policy and provide "constitutionally protected religious accommodation," such as a designated prayer room.
The group has also requested the school department institute diversity training for school staff, and to ensure the middle-schooler won't face retaliation because of her request to pray at the Lewiston Middle School.
According to the Washington, D.C.,-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, seventh-grader Nasra Aden had been routinely "praying discreetly during her free time or lunch break in a corner of a school hallway." But, on Tuesday, CAIR asserts a teacher told Aden "never to pray on school property" after Aden was seen preparing to kneel in prayer in a corner of one of the hallways.
After Aden told her mother, Jamad Warsame, what happened, Warsame spoke with school Principal Maureen Lachappelle and asked the school to accommodate her daughter's desire to pray. According to CAIR, Warsame's request was rebuffed and she has been "forced to pick up her daughter every day and take her to a nearby park to pray."
Lachappelle said Aden is not being forced to leave school to pray, but that the district accommodated her mother's request for her to leave the campus this past week for prayer.
Lewiston Superintendent Leon Levesque, who learned of CAIR's written accusations hours after a press release had already been published on various Web sites, said, "Students are free to pray quietly during class if they choose as long as it's not disruptive," because "prayer is constitutionally protected in schools."
"They can pray audibly or silently," and are subjected to the same rules of order as apply to other students in the school. "We have never denied a student's right to pray," he said.
Aden's uncle, Ismail Warsame, who lives in Orono, said Lachappelle and another school official told the family that because the school department "could not provide a room for Muslims to pray, it was against the school policy for anyone to pray."
Lachappelle disputes that was the department's explanation.
Lachappelle said she told Jamad Warsame that the school department cannot provide special prayer rooms for students of any religion, but that "students certainly have a right to pray in school. We know that's their constitutional right."
A lot of kids pray silently in school," Lachappelle said, at their desks before a test or during study hall. "We don't promote prayer and we don't deny" students' right to pray, she said. "We're neutral."
Levesque said that staff is trained to protect the right of students to pray, and he's certain many students do pray unnoticed. The district also allows religious clubs to meet in school buildings before and after school, and that students are permitted to be excused from school for religious holidays.
In a written statement, Ismail Warsame called school officials' alleged actions in responding to Aden's effort to pray "a stunning scenario of lack of multicultural competency" and "clear violation of our constitutional rights to free religious expression."
Warsame also accused Lachappelle of hanging up on him as he was asking whether the school department would accommodate the family's request to accommodate the specific religious needs of certain students. Lachappelle acknowledged she did end a phone conversation with Warsame abruptly because "he wouldn't take no for an answer."
According to Lachappelle, after an involved conversation about the school's position on allowing silent prayer, she said she told Warsame that "this is what the ruling is. We're disagreeing, and I'm following district policy. I feel we need to end this conversation."
CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper said Friday that if the Lewiston School Department did not address its four requests to allow prayer, modify school policy, institute training and protect Aden from retaliation, "we wouldn't really have much choice but to take the case further" because "the student has the legal right and the constitutional right to pray in school in a manner that is not disruptive to the learning environment."
Hooper said no one from CAIR spoke to school officials before filing its four-prong request because it is their general practice to file requests and then follow up with schools and other organizations to institute changes.