My high school’s Muslim prayer room was a lesson in religious freedom

(RNS) The Muslim prayer room at Hiba Siddiqi's public Texas high school was not only tolerated by her fellow students, it was a tangible lesson in religious tolerance.

Amna Salman, foreground, and other Muslim students gather to pray inside a classroom at Liberty High in Frisco. Photo courtesy of Lara Solt/KERA News

(RNS) The lucky firstborn of two Pakistani-American public servants, I was raised in one of the most diverse counties in the U.S. Fort Bend is Texas’ very own multicultural hub. According to the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice, 36 percent of the county’s residents in 2015 were white, 21 percent were black, 24 percent Latino and 20 percent Asian.

My father was a police officer, the first Muslim to join the Houston police force, and my mother was a physician who owned a small private practice in the heart of the city. Within a five-mile radius from where I lived, there were six or seven mosques, easy. My family had its own version of the American dream, and growing up in such a loving Muslim home was nothing short of being blessed.

Part of the reason I felt accepted and at home in Fort Bend was because I went to the most diverse high school in the district. The students reflected the many different families and cultures living in the city. Religious groups at my school included the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a Jewish group and the Muslim Student Association.

At the beginning of the school year, it was common practice for representatives from the Muslim Student Association to meet with the administration and ask permission to use a room in the school as a prayer room. Muslim students were then granted a sponsor who would lend us his or her classroom for the year to be used for daily and weekly prayers. All the public high schools that I knew of granted rooms of prayer for students when requested, regardless of religious orientation.

A prayer room was particularly important for the Muslim students, however, because daily prayer is a pillar of our religion. It is commanded at specific times throughout the day. To remain in school all day and still faithfully follow the religious practice, students need a place to pray. At my high school, non-Muslim students never complained about this practice, there was never any backlash, and the administration understood the accommodation to be an important part of running a diverse public educational institution.

RELATED: As a Christian, I didn’t realize why my Muslim classmates needed a prayer space of their own

So when I heard that Texas Deputy Attorney General Andrew Leonie  outlined a set of legal concerns in a letter to the superintendent of the Frisco Independent School District, I was confused. Frisco’s Liberty High School is only a few hours from where I grew up, and like my school, it allows Muslim students to pray in a designated room.

I have been politically socialized to understand every citizen’s equality under the law, and freedom of public worship is no exception.

Raheel Ahmed, left, and Zaki Sayyid fold a sheet that was laid down for a gathering of Muslim students to pray at Liberty High School. Photo courtesy of Lara Solt/KERA News

Section 6, Article 1 of the Texas Constitution, titled Freedom of Worship, reads: “No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious society or mode of worship. But it shall be the duty of the Legislature to pass such laws as may be necessary to protect equally every religious denomination in the peaceable enjoyment of its own mode of public worship.”

Most of us are familiar with the constitutional concept of freedom of religion. It’s what’s taught in our public institutions and, at a visceral level for me, what makes America revolutionary. Prohibition of prayer rooms in public schools breaches that basic right. The beautiful thing about American secularism is the fact that no religion is to be privileged over another. This is the exact premise under which prayer spaces in schools are legal, as long as students are not required to participate and the practice is not being promoted by a school official.

Freedom of worship may have been a much simpler idea for our Founding Fathers when the concept applied primarily to Christian worship. However, in a rich, diverse America, it now must also govern the freedom of worship for the many different faiths that reside here.

And beyond the constitutional question, I wonder if prayer spaces like the one in my high school can help rid our country of Islamophobia. In a way, the prayer space in my high school normalized Islamic prayer within our school community. Muslim students rarely faced any religiously charged hostilities.

I used to tell people that exposure to a thing results in the normalization of that thing, but I now realize that the only way to transcend lines of difference is through exposure plus education. This happens when prayer spaces are normalized in public school, permitting respectful interfaith dialogue to take place. Being able to see something as a constant, as a facet of American diversity, and a real part of human expression makes that thing less strange. Then, being able to learn about it and understand it leads to less fear.

I feel such an overwhelming sense of love and indebtedness to have grown up in a place that sanctifies multiculturalism and honors real diversity. Others, not so far away, grow up buffeted by malice, insensitivity and ignorance.

Differences should be radically embraced because the only thing held constant in life is the diversity of human expression. It is important to build upon that truth within our own communities, whether it be out in the world or in our schools.

(Hiba Siddiqi is a freshman at St. Edward’s University, where she is president of the Muslim Student Association)

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