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Concerns After Texas School Opens 'Prayer Room' That's Attracting Muslim Students

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to the first of two stories we're bringing you today on matters of faith. First, to Texas where we'll hear about a high school classroom that's being used as a prayer room, a move that's drawn the attention of the Texas attorney general. The school district says students have been praying in the room for years without complaints. Now it's causing educators to think about how public schools accommodate students and their faith. From member station KERA in Dallas, Stella Chavez reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

STELLA CHAVEZ, BYLINE: It's Friday afternoon inside a classroom at Liberty High School.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

CHAVEZ: About a dozen Muslim students are there to pray. Girls wear hijabs, and everyone has their shoes off. They spend the next 15 minutes in prayer. Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. At a recent school board meeting, parent Tim Boyer spoke out.

TIM BOYER: Liberty High School is not a mosque. It's not a synagogue. It's not a tabernacle. It's not a temple. It's not a church. It is a school. It is a public school supported by taxpayers for the purpose of educating our children.

CHAVEZ: Boyer says students of any faith should pray before or after school or on their lunch break, not during class time. The school established a prayer room in part because Muslim students were leaving on Fridays to pray at a mosque and were gone for two hours. The state attorney general's office raised concerns about the room saying it should be open to all students. Chris Moore is a district spokesman.

CHRIS MOORE: I assure you that that room is accessible to all students of all denominations, all walks of faith, all cultures, all ethnicities. And I assure you that that is in place.

CHAVEZ: It's not clear how many public schools in Texas have prayer rooms or designated areas where students can pray, but they are legally allowed in schools across the country. Joy Baskin is with the Texas Association of School Boards.

JOY BASKIN: It's a concept that courts have looked at for many years. It's called release time. And it's the idea that in order to follow a tenant of faith the student is briefly excused.

CHAVEZ: She says students can leave class or campus for religious purposes. Schools can also allow head coverings or meet students' dietary restrictions. Kelly Shackelford is CEO of First Liberty Institute, a legal organization that focuses on religious freedom. He says students can gather to pray in school as long as the same accommodations are made for students of other faiths, and the school must remain neutral.

KELLY SHACKELFORD: The law is that we don't want the government, you know, which is running the schools, to push religion or try to force anybody into a particular religion but to provide the students who have perfect freedom under the First Amendment to live out their faith.

CHAVEZ: The more common legal battles, he says, are when schools try to shut down religious expression. For junior Shoaib Farooqui, the prayer room is an opportunity to help others understand what Islam is and what it's not.

SHOAIB FAROOQUI: And then, hopefully people from, quote, unquote, "the western world" will be able to see, hey, you guys aren't exactly like ISIS, you guys aren't exactly like terror groups, you guys aren't exactly supporting an oppressive nation. And hopefully that can sort of alter the perception that we see today.

CHAVEZ: For now, the Texas state attorney general's office says it has no problems with the prayer room at Liberty High School in Frisco, as long as it's open to any student of any faith during non-class time. For NPR News, I'm Stella Chavez in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.