CLIFTON PARK — In an effort to make things easier for Muslim students and employees during Ramadan, Shenendehowa High School will provide space for prayers in both school buildings.
The East and West buildings will allow students and other district personnel who are practicing Muslims to use empty classrooms, room 65 in High School West and room 109 in High School East, for prayer during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which is the most sacred month of the year in the Islamic calendar. Practicing Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours and take part in many other daily acts of worship, including five daily prayers. This year, Ramadan is from Saturday, May 27, to Saturday, June 24.
The decision to make the classrooms available for prayer came after the high school administration met with local mosque leaders in March, in an effort to find ways the district can better serve the needs of all students. It is part of Shen’s longtime goal of making the large school community more culturally literate and inclusive, according to district spokeswoman Kelly DeFeciani.
She said the classrooms picked for prayer are standard classrooms that weren’t being utilized during the day. Students and others will be permitted to reorganize the rooms however they need while praying, including moving desks. DeFeciani said the school does not keep data on how many students are practicing Muslims.
Typically, schools districts do not hold classes during religious holidays such as Good Friday and Yom Kippur. But this year, Ramadan spans a month during which school is still in session, and though students are granted absence to participate in the holiday, they’re often forced to work their religious activities around schoolwork. Opening the classrooms, said DeFeciani, gives those students a place on campus where they can partake in the holiday with hopefully minimal disruption to their education.
Despite media reports of backlash from parents over the move, DeFeciani said the district had not received any complaints, as of Thursday afternoon. Prayer is constitutionally protected in public elementary and secondary schools, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public school officials, even though they are barred from favoring or directing prayer in school, are required to be neutral in their treatment of religion.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, students are permitted to pray when not engaged in school instruction and are free to read religious texts, say grace before meals and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour or other free time, to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities. Shen already has a prayer club on campus, as well.
“Students have always had the right to pray,” DeFeciani said. “We can’t deny kids the right to pray.”
In a letter sent to all students' homes in the district, high school principal Don Flynt noted the use of the classrooms for prayer is at the discretion of the students.
“The school district recognizes the diverse religious backgrounds and values represented in the school community and the importance of being sensitive to the needs of all students and personnel,” he stated in the letter.