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2017-07-12 / Front Page

ACLU: Muslim student’s rights were violated

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

Local school officials are investigating an allegation that a Bellwood Elementary School physical education teacher violated the rights of a Muslim student by forcing her to run in class even after the student informed the teacher she was fasting in observance of Ramadan.

Leslie Mehta, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, notified Chesterfield County Public Schools of the student’s claim in a June 22 letter to Superintendent James Lane.

School Board Attorney Wendell Roberts responded to Mehta’s letter on Lane’s behalf last week. Roberts said the school system is “deeply concerned” about the allegation of religious discrimination and promised a complete review of the May 30 incident at Bellwood Elementary.

“The school division regrets that the parent believes the school division was insensitive to her family’s observance of Ramadan,” Roberts wrote, noting that a member of the school system’s administrative leadership team will be contacting the parent in the next few weeks to discuss the findings of the investigation.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, marks the Prophet Muhammad’s receipt of the first of the revelations that comprise the Quran, the holy book of Islam.

During Ramadan, which took place this year from May 26 to June 24, Muslims abstain from food and drink – including water – between sunrise and sunset.

The month of fasting is required of all Muslims who are physically able. The only exceptions are for pregnant women, people with certain medical conditions and travelers.

“During this time of the year, the fasting period can last over sixteen hours,” Mehta wrote in her letter to Lane. “Understandably, going without food or drink for this long can be very tiring and stressful on the body.” According to Mehta, the student sought a special accommodation from the teacher because she was fasting, but the teacher ignored her and insisted she run.

“When the teacher deemed that her speed was unsatisfactory, it has been reported that he then repeatedly forced the entire class to continue running as punishment,” Mehta added. “After being forced to run, the fasting student complained of feeling nauseous and weak.”

Mehta suggested that if the allegations are true, the teacher’s actions violated two amendments to the U.S. Constitution: the first, which guarantees the free exercise of religion, and the fourteenth, which ensures equal protection of rights under the law.

She also said that forcing a student to run while fasting would violate the Virginia Act for Restoration of Religious Freedom and two school system policies regarding religion.

“Fasting is difficult enough alone, but it becomes exceedingly more difficult if required to do so while exerting substantial physical energy,” Mehta noted. “Instead, teachers should make accommodations for fasting students, such as assigning a different task to complete that does not require them to do any strenuous exercise.”

Roberts assured Mehta that school officials will take “appropriate action” depending on the outcome of the probe.

“The school division will also use this incident as a means to review our existing instructional practices, School Board policies, as well as assess the need for professional development on non-western religious beliefs and customs and our obligations under state and federal anti-discrimination laws,” he added. ¦

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