The parent of of Wellesley, Massachusetts student, whose sixth grade class visited a Boston area mosque and participated in an Islamic prayer service, charges that school officials violated the students’ constitutional rights by taking them to any house of worship. According to attorney Robert N. Meltzer, who is representing the parent, when the Wellesley School District (WSD) took the students to a Roxbury mosque last May, the trip violated the students’ First Amendment rights because they were too young to consent to the religious message. He also pointed out that even if some of the students had not bowed their heads during the prayer service, the trip would still have been inappropriate. “We view this as a very simple constitutional law case,’’ said Meltzer, adding that he will file a federal class-action lawsuit against the school district if the disagreement cannot be resolved. “We believe that a school cannot bring middle-school children to any house of worship. Period.’’
Bella T. Wong, WSD’s superintendent, apologized for the participation of students in the prayer service, adding that teachers would be given clearer guidance in the future about acceptable behavior on field trips. However, she said she still believes that taking field trips to supplement classroom learning is a valuable educational experience. Parents had to sign consent forms allowing their children to visit the mosque; the parents of one student declined to give permission, she said. Wong said no decisions had been made yet about field trips for the religion class next year. She said she had not spoken to Meltzer, but doesn’t share his belief that any field trip to a house of worship is unconstitutional.
Meltzer said he is drafting a letter to Wellesley’s town counsel, laying out remedies for the practice he believes is unconstitutional. He did not elaborate, but said he will send the letter within two weeks. Albert Robinson, Wellesley’s town counsel, said he spoke to Meltzer briefly about the issue. Robinson said he didn’t know of any legal precedents that would ban schools from taking students to a place of worship, and although allowing some to participate in prayer was wrong, he didn’t think the school district had erred in scheduling the trip to the mosque.
Source: Boston Globe, 9/22/10, By Kathleen Burge
[Editor's Note: The Boston Globe article also discusses Americans for Peace & Tolerance (APT), another player in the controversy. According to the Globe, APT sparked the controversy by arranging for a chaperon to shoot video of the field trip, then publicizing the video footage to the Islamic Society of Boston Community Center. APT has been an outspoken critic of the mosque since it opened in 2009. Meltzer disputed the notion that his client had recorded the mosque visit at the behest of APT. APT's website is available at the first link below.
In a 2005 unpublished opinion, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (CA, OR, WA, AZ, MT, ID, NV, AK, HI, GU, MP) ruled that a California school district's use of role-playing in a world history class to teach middle school students about Islam does not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. A summary of the opinion is available at the second link below.]