A school in Texas has found itself embroiled in a political nightmare after the state’s Attorney General accused it of being “anti-Christian” for allowing Muslim students to pray in a spare classroom.
In what has been described by as a “publicity stunt”, Ken Paxton wrote an open letter to the suburban Dallas school to express his “concerns” that the school had violated the Constitution as the classroom was “not available to students of all faiths”.
“Instead, it appears that the prayer room is ‘dedicated to the religious needs of some students’ – namely, those who practice Islam,” he wrote in the letter on 17 March to Liberty High School.
“It is unclear whether students of other faiths may use the room at the same time or at other times during the week. Liberty High School’s policy should be neutral toward religion.”
Mr Paxton’s letter was backed up by Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
“The Texas Attorney General is looking into the Public School Prayer Room issue many of you have questioned,” he wrote on social media.
The Frisco Independent School District Superintendent Jeremy Lyon responded in a letter that the classroom was open for all students and that the school was complying with the law – including the Texas religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires it not to “substantially burden” a person’s free exercise of religion.
The use of the classroom, which has not been questioned for more than seven years, was provided as an alternative to Muslim students who otherwise had to miss hours of school to travel several miles to the nearest mosque. Instead, every lunchtime a handful of students would come in and pray for five minutes.
Mr Lyon questioned Mr Paxton’s claim that the Attorney General had already made an “initial enquiry” to the school which had not been addressed. Mr lyon said he had learnt of the open letter through media reports.
“It is important to note Frisco ISD is greatly concerned that this type of inflammatory rhetoric in the current climate may place the District, its students, staff, parents and community in danger of unnecessary disruption,” he wrote.
A week before he read the letter, the school principal had told KERA public radio that all students were welcome to use the room.
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Mr Paxton was unrepentant, however, and said in an interview with Fox News that the prayer room must be open for all students. The school has alleged that the official has failed to respond to their enquiries since issuing the press release on Friday.
The Texas branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement, calling Mr Paxton’s letter a “cheap Islamophobic publicity stunt”.
“Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office appears to have made its ill-informed statements without first contacting school officials,” it read.
“That apparent lack of interest in the facts of this case would seem to confirm suspicions that the ‘concerns’ about Muslim prayers have less to do with religious neutrality, and more to do with exploiting growing Islamophobia in our state and nationwide.”
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The school maintained the prayer room would remain open this week – for all students.
Mr Paxton previously successfully sued a middle school principal to keep a Bible quote on a door and has criticised what he describes as “anti-Christian discrimination” in state schools.
In 2015, Mr Paxton joined 15 other states to oppose a lawsuit from an atheist society to stop school board officials from conducting religious prayers before public meetings.
Mr Paxton also supported President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that millions of people voted illegally, which is why, Mr Trump claimed, that he lost the popular vote.
“I guarantee it is happening — whatever people say,” Mr Paxton told The Washington Times.