Religious accommodation of Somali Muslims in Lewiston Maine
lgilbert at STU.EDU
Wed Jul 16 15:51:52 PDT 2008
I'm spending this summer doing research on the integration of the Somali population into Lewiston, Maine. Some of you may have read the New Yorker piece in December 2006. Since 2001, over 3,000 Somalis who were resettled in major urban areas have chose to relocate to Lewiston, Maine, with the desire of being able to raise their families and practice their faith in relative piece. Over the last several years, the public schools have struggled with issues of how to accommodate the Somalis' religious beliefs and practices, including women's use of the veil, dietary requirements, daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, and girls' participation in P.E. The public school system has been very solicitous of the Somali community and their religious practices, working with a cultural broker to achieve solutions satisfactory to both the more conservative Somalis and the public schools. They adopted a dress code allowing the use of headwear for religious purposes, allow Muslim girls to put on sweatpants under their hijab for P.E., allow students to opt out of PE during Ramadan, and have allowed for special gym classes to avoid physical contact between boys and girls. They also allow Muslim students to leave for Friday prayer, although they discourage this. They have not gone so far as to create a special prayer room for Muslim students at the school, although in the City of Portland, 30 minutes away, the high school has created a special prayer room.
So far, given the solicitousness of the city, the situation doesn't seem to raise any free exercise issues. Although there is a Jewish community, these issues have never really come up before. But I'm wondering what people's thoughts are regarding the Establishment Clause. In an effort to attempt to integrate the Somali Muslims into the City, officials are bending over backwards to accommodate their religious beliefs, including inviting them to give closing prayers at City Council meetings and installing Catholic Charities in City Hall to provide them with resettlement services. In terms of the educational issues, are any of these practices troubling under the Establishment Clause? Most of the policies seem to have a secular purpose, of ensuring that Somali Muslim students can fully participate in academic and extracurricular activities. But the hiring by the city of a cultural broker to attempt to navigate these issues, while effective is somewhat troubling, because it seems like the primary effect of all of these measures is to minimize the intrusion of secular education on Muslim beliefs and cultural practices, and the hiring by the city of a cultural broker to navigate these issues suggests at least some entanglement with religion.
And what about the practice of setting aside a special room in the school for Muslims to pray? Does this tip the scales? Or is it acceptable accommodation of religious beliefs in a highly charged atmosphere?
Your thoughts are most welcome.
Associate Professor of Law
St. Thomas University School of Law
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