Aug 26, 2014 2:30 AM by Matthew Schwartz
Tucson - It's 12:40 P.M., and in the Islamic Center of Tucson, a time to pray.
Muslims have a strict daily prayer schedule, five times a day at specific times. One of those times is in the middle of the school day.
Ten miles away, in a room off the library at Desert View High School, four to six Muslim students pray during every school day for about 10 minutes. Sunnyside Unified School District officials tell the News 4 Tucson Investigators that all but one of the students pray during their lunch period, the other misses a few minutes of a class.
Community activist Richard Hernandez doesn't have a problem with allowing prayer, but with how the administration handled it.
"They failed to let the community know what was going on," Hernandez said.
He believes the district should have told parents before-hand. "Anything that happens to your child, it is this obligation of this school, and any school district in Pima County, to tell the parents," Hernandez said.
Our policy is very clear about allowing and accommodating this.
Sunnyside Schools Acting Superintendent Dr. Eugenia Favela told us she hasn't directly received a single complaint about allowing school prayer, she only heard about it second-hand. She says she didn't think a public notice sent to parents was needed to inform them that a few students were praying in a separate room. Favela was first told about the current prayer group in an email this month from a Desert View principal. She told us, "Our policy is very clear about allowing and accomodating this."
SUSD's Freedom of Expression policy states:
"Students are to be permitted to pray or engage in religious activities or expression in the same manner and to the same extent as students are permitted to engage in non-religious activities or expression, before, during and after the school day."
Favela told the News 4 Tucson Investigators, "It is not a violation in the sense that we are not promoting it. It would be a violation of church and state issues if we were promoting these views."
There's been significant confusion and misinformation about prayer in schools; some people think it is not allowed. That's partly because the Supreme Court in 1962 ruled that official prayer had no place in public education. But the Court did not rule that students are forbidden to pray on their own, it removed only government or school-sponsored prayer.
Alex Luchenitser is an Associate Legal Director with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He says," The separation of church and state prohibits schools from promoting religion. This probably does not present any constitutional problem as long as the same accommodation would be given to any other religion."
Dr. Favela recognizes that, telling the News 4 Tucson Investigators that if any students wanted to have a group of non-religious activity, the district would need to accommodate them. And she says if any parent has a question about the praying going on at Desert View, she'd be happy to answer them, just contact her office.
Remember if you have a story you'd like us to investigate, email us at investigators @kvoa.com, or call our tip line, 520-955-4444.