In all my years as a student, I have never had a prayer room in my school or on my campus. Not in grade school, high school, or in college. It wasn’t something that I noticed, because it wasn’t something I personally needed.
As a Christian in the United States, I had Sundays off from school. My winter and spring breaks usually freed me up for Christmas and Easter (plus Easter is on a Sunday, and at one point we even got Good Friday off too). And we pledged allegiance to “one nation under God” every morning. That seemed to give me free license to pray when and where I wanted.
The world around me was constructed to, more or less, accommodate my faith.
But many Muslim students cannot take for granted what I, as a Christian, was able to take for granted.
Recently, in a letter to the Frisco Independent School District, the Texas attorney general’s office raised concerns about the constitutionality of a Muslim prayer room at Frisco’s Liberty High School, based on the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
The AG’s office is overreaching with this formal letter and question to the district: Do students of other faiths have access to the prayer room? The answer is “yes.”
So it is hard to see the letter as anything more than political hot air. But it does raise more relevant questions about how neutral public schools actually are — or should be — toward religion.
I saw the situation from a non-Christian point of view when I decided to join students from my college’s Muslim Student Association for jumah — a prayer service held on Fridays just after noon.
I went because I had been named an interfaith liaison for the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel Assistants program at Morehouse College, where I was a student. It seemed that visiting other religious communities on campus would be a good first step to figure out what my role would be in this new position, and to make myself more qualified for that role.
The Muslim Student Association was the only well-established, non-Christian, religious student organization on campus, so that community was my obvious first stop.
When I think about the controversy over Liberty High School’s prayer room, I can’t help but think about my experience for that one hour a week back in college when I attended jumah.
Friday is a workday everywhere in the United States, including at our colleges and universities, so I often had my class schedule to work around. There was also food. I had to figure how I would work a lunch in between jumah and class. And I had to hike across my campus to jumah at nearby Spelman College, because there wasn’t a Muslim prayer space on my campus. And when I left this peaceful prayer space, I was launched back into the regular stress and pace of the working day.
The most unfortunate part of the arrangement was the absence of a Muslim prayer space on my own college campus.
I attended jumah in the basement of Spelman College’s Sisters Chapel. Granted, it was a nice basement with carpet and plenty of room, and wash areas for men and women to do their requisite ablution before prayer. But my impression was still that this basement was an afterthought, as opposed to a well-planned, well-appointed space.
It wasn’t until I went to jumah that I even considered how easy it had been for me to be a Christian student all these years. I realized how much public space my Christianity had been allowed to occupy and how little space had been allotted to others. This revelation was made all the more stark by the fact that I attended a private institution that was unrestricted by the legal limits imposed on public schools, as they try to support their students of various faiths.
Of about a dozen worship spaces among the Atlanta University Center — four historically black colleges and universities in southwest Atlanta, including Morehouse — not one of them was dedicated to non-Christian practitioners. Not one.
At Morehouse alone, there are two Christian chapels. Serving the entire Atlanta University Center, there are separate Catholic and Episcopal chapels with full-time staff. The historic Danforth Chapel is also available as a worship space. The Interdenominational Theological Center, a historically black Christian seminary, provides a whole other set of Christian spaces.
It seemed as if I could not walk more than a hundred feet without encountering a chapel built for Christian students.
Certainly, the fact remains that non-Christians are in the minority while Christians represent more than 70 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. Having more spaces for Christian worship makes sense. But that doesn’t relieve the nation of its responsibility to protect everyone’s religious freedom.
At public schools, such as Liberty High School, where there is a constitutional limit to the amount of support and encouragement an institution can offer a community of faith, we should be trying to maximize the space we offer to accommodate many faiths and support religious liberty. We should do our best to alleviate any tension between being a faithful student and a student of faith for as many as possible, and live into that less-debated part of our pledge: to be a nation with liberty and justice for all.