On 29 March 2016 the web site US Herald published an article reporting that Muslim students in St. Cloud, Minnesota were receiving accommodations (namely, prayer rugs) at taxpayer expense deemed “impermissible” for pupils of other religions:
It isn’t known if schools in America are installing holy water fonts next to the classroom doors, although they are small, plastic, inexpensive, and unobtrusive, nor is it known if Christian students are now allowed 20-seconds a day to say Grace before lunch, and there is little evidence that school districts have made the switch to Kosher foods to accommodate the dietary restrictions of Jewish students.
The St. Cloud, Minnesota school district, however, is devoting its resources to providing accommodations to Muslim students based solely on the basis of their religion, which under the current interpretation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment, would be impermissible for Christian or Jewish students – or Hindu, Buddhist or pagan students, either.
The accommodations come as a result of a federal lawsuit filed in 2011 by the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) alleging that the school district had created a hostile environment for Muslim students.
Somalis are the fastest growing group of residents in St. Cloud, a small city of 65,000 in central Minnesota comprising approximately 20 percent of the school district’s 10,000 students.
Now Muslims students are not only given time both in class and in private rooms for prayer, which is “required” by their faith, but providing prayer rugs for them to use – free of charge courtesy of the taxpayers
US Herald included a “source” link at the bottom of the page. That led to a 23 March 2016 PBS Newshour article, which made absolutely no mention of prayer rugs bought at taxpayer expense and contradicted the claim that Muslim students receive accommodations that are denied students of other faiths. In keeping with federal laws regarding religious accommodation, St. Cloud’s middle and high schools maintain rooms for prayer (and other purposes) that are open to students of all religions, and the school cafeteria offers pork-free lunch options but has not removed pork from their menu:
In St. Cloud’s middle and high schools, the district allows prayer time for students, including Muslim students, as federal law requires. The rooms used for prayer are open to all students to observe their beliefs and are used for other purposes throughout the school day. Districtwide, school lunch menus provide pork-free options for students, and staff members try to spur the newcomer students’ interest in sports, culture clubs, and other extracurricular activities to develop connections beyond the classroom.
PBS Newshour also mentioned a 2011 complaint brought by the Council for American-Islamic Relations:
St. Cloud’s Technical High School, the site of Somali student protests last spring over anti-Muslim harassment, began an international club that allows English-learner students to showcase their cultural heritage.
A 2011 settlement ending a federal civil rights investigation of the treatment of Somali students in St. Cloud requires the school district to report all allegations of harassment.
Under the agreement, the district must make its schools more welcoming to Somalis.
But the agreement didn’t signal an end to the resentment and clashes in the district.
Last spring, racial and religious tensions at Technical High School erupted when students and parents, most of them Somali, alleged that school officials did not adequately respond to bullying incidents and anti-Islamic discrimination.
A social media post that implied a Technical High student had ties to the Islamic State terrorist group whose adherents have been responsible for deadly attacks, sparked the protest.
PBS Newshour included a letter from the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights [PDF], which addressed a claim filed by CAIR in 2010 against St. Cloud Area School District #742 alleging discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. The words “prayer,” “rugs,” “prayer rugs,” “Muslim,” “faith,” or “worship” appeared nowhere in that document, nor did the letter pertain to the practice of religion among St. Cloud’s Somali students:
The specific harassment alleged in the OCR complaint involved offensive and derogatory comments and behaviors by white students and teachers toward Somali students during the 2008- 09 and 2009-10 school years. Evidence obtained by OCR during its investigation indicated that, during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, Somali students at both high schools were subjected to negative comments and physical intimidation, based on their race and national origin, in school classrooms, hallways and cafeterias. In addition, OCR learned that the harassment was reported to the District.
Prior to the completion of OCR’s investigation, the District expressed an interest in resolving the complaint by voluntarily entering into a settlement agreement. Subsequent discussions with the District resulted in the District signing the enclosed agreement (Agreement) which, when fully implemented, will resolve the issue in the OCR complaint. The provisions of the Agreement are aligned with the OCR complaint allegation and with the information obtained to date during the OCR investigation. The Agreement provisions are consistent with the applicable regulations. As a result of the Agreement, OCR is not making any compliance determination regarding the allegation of discrimination in the OCR complaint.
Under the provisions of the Agreement, the District will take all reasonable steps to ensure that all students in the District are not subjected to harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin, and to respond promptly and appropriately to all reports of harassment.
Ultimately, US Herald‘s brief article managed to include multiple inaccuracies and outright untruths. Not only were Muslim students not supplied with prayer rugs at taxpayer expense, but the source article only briefly mentioned prayer rooms, and then made it clear that they were available to students of all faiths.
The 2011 complaint brought against the St. Cloud district by the Council on American-Islamic Relations had nothing to do with prayer or prayer rugs. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated CAIR’s complaint of harassment based on race, color, or national origin (not faith), and found evidence for its existence from 2008 to 2011. In response to the investigation, the district agreed to ensure all future allegations of harassment were promptly addressed, and no portion of the complaint had anything to do with Islam or prayer rugs. Finally, even if there was truth to the claim (and there was not) the purported accommodations were described as occurring at one school, not all (or even many) of them.
Mitchell, Corey. “How One Minnesota School District Handles A Rising Immigrant Population.”
PBS NewsHour. 23 March 2016.
United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. “Resolution Letter, Re: OCR Docket # 05-10-1146.”
16 November 2011.