Seattle school officials are finding ways to accommodate the needs of a growing Muslim student population without compromising the separation of church and state.
Federal and state law prohibit teacher-led prayer in public schools, as well as student-led prayer at school events or religious programs. But students have a legal right to pray on their own in private or in groups.
The challenge comes in allowing students to pray without disrupting class.
In Islam, prayer five times per day facing Mecca is obligatory. One of the five daily prayers must occur around midday, and on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, the midday prayer is supposed to be in a mosque.
Seattle School District guidelines give school administrators the responsibility of deciding how to handle Muslim prayer. The district's Office of Equity and Race Relations has a committee looking at the needs of Muslim students and the ways the district can address them.
Students at Nathan Hale High School have permission to drive to Idriss Mosque about a mile away for Friday afternoon prayers, a trip that requires them to miss many of their afternoon classes.
Abdisiyad Adan says Nathan Hale teachers and administrators had been helpful in providing a room for prayer and allowing students to miss class, but, he said, it can be a problem elsewhere.
"For all Muslims, prayer is ... significant," Adan said. "When you have to choose between prayer and school, it's tough."
At Garfield High School, an empty classroom is provided for Muslims to pray during lunch periods, Principal Ted Howard said. Students who don't want to miss lunch can have an extra 10 minutes to pray after the lunch period provided their teachers sign off on it. On Fridays, Muslims are allowed to go to a nearby mosque.
"As long as we have the space, and people are willing to step up and help us out, we're willing to accommodate most students' needs," Howard said.
The Seattle area is home to an estimated 40,000 Muslims, and while Seattle Public Schools doesn't track religious affiliation among its students, officials believe the number of Muslims is growing.
Caprice Hollins, the district's director of equity and race relations, said that over the past several years, administrators and teachers have contacted her with questions about Muslim students' needs. She said the committee looking at the needs of Muslim students isn't trying to come up with policy but rather to provide information to staff members about Muslim culture.
"People (have to) have some tools (to) help teachers and principals answer questions about Muslim students," said Hollins. "Certainly (some) schools are already doing a great job addressing the issue of prayer ... but there are also schools that struggle in this area."
Other Western Washington districts are taking similar approaches.
In Shoreline, Muslim students are provided with an empty classroom for prayers and are usually allowed to miss class for their prayers. Shorewood High School senior Omar Sarhan said teachers sometimes suggest that students remain in class for particularly important assignments.
In the Edmonds School District, the issue of Muslim prayer has been raised at only one school, Edmonds-Woodway High, where two Muslim students are provided with prayer space to be used at the beginning or end of class periods.
Some critics believe focusing just on Muslim prayer reflects a bias against Christianity. Others say the effort gives too much attention to one group.
Hollins said that Muslim students are unique because they have a particular time of day when they need to pray.
"For myself as a Christian, while I pray every day, there's not a particular time that my supervisor needs to know (about)," Hollins said.
American Civil Liberties Union of Washington spokesman Doug Honig said a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases justifies the Seattle district's efforts.
— The Associated Press