BOTHELL — The Northshore School District has withdrawn a policy accommodating students during Ramadan in response to a “cease and desist” letter filed by a religious freedom organization.
The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund is a pro bono legal team that focuses on First Amendment issues, including religion in public schools.
Dieringer School District, serving Lake Tapps in Pierce County, received a “cease and desist” letter from the defense fund earlier this month for allegedly endorsing Islam and following a script by the Council on American-Islamic Relations that urges schools to make special accommodations for Muslim students.
The defense fund sent Northshore, its superintendent Michelle Reid and school board a “cease and desist” letter May 10. The letter demanded the district shut down its Ramadan policy.
Northshore’s Equity and Diversity department previously issued guidelines to school officials to make sure “students have the right accommodations and support from teachers and their peers.”
The original guidelines included the following:
Planning in advance with Muslim students to allow them to “quietly slip away” for prayer to “avoid calling unwanted attention to them.”
“When planning school activities and events, think about how it will impact practicing Muslim students” by asking “Will they feel left out?” and “Will they feel pressured to break their fast before sunset or Iftar (breaking of fast)?”
“A brief mention of Ramadan or a lesson on it may promote the feeling of inclusivity” because some “… Muslim students may feel embarrassed to be specially accommodated.”
Create “comfortable” safe spaces for Muslim students with “books, magazines and other things to keep students busy.”
“Fitness and cardio assessments could be done prior to the beginning of Ramadan,” or allow Muslim students “provide a support role for coach/teacher while being responsible for content learning.” Also “privately offer information about nutritional adaptations” to Muslim students while they fast during the day.
According to the defense fund, an anonymous Northshore faculty member contacted them and said the district’s “pro-Islam ‘diversity’ mandates are being forced on teachers.”
“The school district’s so-called Ramadan ‘accommodations’ run roughshod over the First Amendment and are a blatant insult to students of other faiths,” Daniel Piedra, defense fund executive director, said in a statement. “Under the mantle of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion,’ school officials have exalted Islam as the state-sponsored religion. Teachers and parents are outraged, and they should be.”
In the defense fund’s “cease and desist” letter to Northshore, it demanded the district “rescind the Ramadan Policy; restore the rights of non-Muslim students of faith to be treated equally under the law; undertake a review of all instances in which district officials enforced the Ramadan policy; and inform staff and parents of the district’s unlawful actions and your efforts to remedy them.”
It asked for a written response within five business days. “If we do not receive a response by then, we may be forced to take legal action, by which we will seek injunctive relief, damages, and attorneys’ fees,” the letter said.
In Reid’s May 17 “Thursday Thoughts” district blog, she said she and the Equity and Diversity department worked together to issue a revised letter that details how the district is supporting its Muslim students.
The district suggested a neutral “comfortable space for fasting students,” but informed teachers it’s up to the student to choose to go there or not.
The policy also suggested that PE teachers may accommodate fasting students to avoid strenuous activities. According to the defense fund, both suggestions are likely reasonable under the First Amendment to the extent they would not impose undue hardship on school operations.
“Muslim students no doubt have a right to receive appropriate religious accommodations,” Piedra said. “But Northshore’s plan went above and beyond mere ‘accommodations’; it exalted Islam as the privileged religion in the school district. It is unfortunate it took a threat to sue for district officials to come to their senses.”
The defense fund, which is based in Rancho Santa Fe, California, said it will continue to monitor the district’s actions and is awaiting documents from a public records request. According to district officials, the records will be produced by June 21.
While Northshore has pulled back on its Ramadan policy, a new law in Washington signed April 29 by Gov. Jay Inslee requires college faculty to accommodate students when faith and studies conflict. It takes effect July 1.
The genesis of the law stems from a biology class at UW Bothell taught by Bryan White, who noticed that a student who had done well on the first three exams did much worse on the final. The student mentioned she had been fasting for Ramadan. Some other faculty have made similar accommodations.
This story originally appeared in the Bothell-Kenmore Reporter, a sibling paper to the Herald.