WELLESLEY — This affluent suburb found itself cast squarely into the culture wars yesterday, as controversy engulfed school officials over a field trip to a Boston mosque where several sixth-grade pupils were videotaped kneeling during a prayer service.
As blogs and talk radio programs raged over whether the school should have allowed the trip, the mosque issued a statement saying there was no attempt to coerce the children and accusing critics of fear-mongering. The influential American Jewish Committee called for tighter guidelines for educational trips to religious settings, and First Amendment advocates said such outings ominously blur the divide between church and state.
But those who had the greatest cause for anger, parents of Wellesley students, emerged as the school’s most vigorous defenders. At coffee shops and in school parking lots, they insisted that the visit to New England’s largest mosque was a valuable educational experience that would help children gain an understanding of the Muslim faith. The backlash against the visit, many said, underscored the need for such exchanges.
I'm with the quoted parents on this one. If the facts are as they are reported in the story, and there's no hidden game-breaker, then there's nothing wrong with students learning about other religions. So the students were kneeling in a mosque. They weren't in what I'd consider an Islamic "prayerful" pose, they were in a quiet and respectful pose. Those are very different.
I've been to Jews' houses during Passover, and even though I'm not Jewish, I respectfully wear a yarmulke during the celebration. Were I invited to a Muslim student's house for Eid, I'd follow whatever conventions were standard in that instance. In neither way would I feel pressured or give anyone reason to believe that I was being converted, I'd just be participating in what I consider to be a cultural exercise.
Granted, I have much more free will than 6th grade students on a field trip. But being taught, and demonstrating, respect in a place of worship hardly strikes me as a bad thing.
Of course, some people can't claim that degree of common sense or see gradations of gray.
On Thursday, a group critical of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center released the recording, taken by a parent who chaperoned the field trip. That prompted a quick apology from the superintendent of Wellesley schools, Bella Wong, who said teachers should not have allowed pupils to take part in the midday prayer service, and she regretted “the offense it may have caused"...
“It’s very important that public schools not put students in a position where they feel obligated or pressured to participate in worship and that they never be subject to proselytizing,’’ said Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C., education group. “The bottom line is the school fell down in its responsibility.’’
I've yet seen no evidence that students were pressured to participate in the prayer. However, there may have been an offer to participate:
Wong, who did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday, said in a letter to parents that teachers anticipated that prayer services would coincide with the pupils’ visit, but made “an error’’ in allowing the children to take part.
The field trip was part of a required social studies course, “Enduring Beliefs and the World Today,’’ which introduces students to world religions. Students had earlier visited a synagogue, attended a gospel music performance, and met with Hindus.
In response to the escalating controversy, the Muslim American Society of Boston, which operates the mosque, condemned the group Americans for Peace and Tolerance for releasing the video. Bilal Kaleem, president of the group, said the heavily edited footage created a misleading impression that the mosque coerced the students into prayer.
“At no point did we attempt to proselytize students, or teach them how to pray, or even invite them to pray,’’ Kaleem said. “Each month about 15 schools, churches, and synagogues reach out to us requesting tours and requesting to see a Muslim prayer. The visit from Wellesley was no exception.’’
In her letter to parents on Thursday, Wong said a representative of the mosque told pupils they were welcome to join in the prayer.
In that case I would say the teachers should have stepped in and said that it would be inappropriate for students to participate. But I'm going to disagree resolutely with this individual:
“Public schools need to have clear guidelines that these field trips are for educational purposes only,’’ said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “If it’s a school-sponsored activity, it may not involve religious practice.’’
Simply observing prayer services, Haynes and others said, was problematic.
“I think it’s too close to participation for comfort,’’ he said. “Observing is a gray area, but these are sixth-graders. They are in a place of worship with worship going on, and I think that crosses the line.’’
Participating would cross the line. Observing is what we in the business call "educational".
My bottom line here is that the teachers erred for allowing a few of the students to apparently "immerse themselves in the experience" and possibly participate in the prayer while the rest of the class merely observed. This error, though, is relatively minor and should merit no more than a brief reminder or warning to teachers not to let such things happen on field trips. That's it.
Yes, Muslims flew airplanes into buildings. Yes, Muslims are doing some pretty nasty things around the world. Yes, we keep waiting for "moderate Muslims" to stand up to the extremism being perpetrated in their name and get their fellow Muslims under some sort of civilized control. Believe me, I get that and I support that.
But the hue and cry over this mosque visit is a bit too far over the top for me.
Hat tip to NewsAlert.
Update, 9/19/10: Mr. Chanman links to video shot by a chaperone mother. Hmmm, not quite as benign as the Boston Globe reported.