Are Christians paying enough attention to religious-liberty issues for Muslims?

At the end of the Obama era, conservative U.S. Christians are expressing more worries about their religious liberties than they have for a very long time.

Yet devout Muslims face their own challenges. So journalists might ask Christian strategists whether these rival religions might unite on future legal confrontations and, right now, whether they support Muslims on, say, NIMBY disputes against mosques, while also asking Muslim leaders about Christians’ concerns.

As Christianity Today magazine editorializes in the June issue, the U.S. “will be stronger if people of faith -- not just of Christian faith -- are free to teach and enact their beliefs in the public square without fear of discrimination or punishment by the government.” 

This story theme is brought to mind by two simultaneous news items.

On May 24 the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a federal bias complaint about Muslim workers at Wisconsin’s Ariens Company, which makes snow blowers and lawn mowers. Christian Science Monitor reportage said Ariens granted two daily breaks from the assembly line for required Muslim prayer times but some workers needed three. After negotiations fizzled, the company fired seven Muslims and 14 others quit.

On May 25, the education board for Switzerland’s Basel canton, with teacher’s union support, rejected appeals to exempt Muslim students from the expected daily shaking of teachers’ hands out of respect. The New York Times said the board acknowledged that strict Muslims believe that after puberty they shouldn’t touch someone of the opposite sex except for close relatives, but hand-shaking doesn’t “involve the central tenets of Islam.”

Both incidents show ignorance of, or lack of respect toward, Islam.

Since 1997, CAIR has published pamphlets by Mohamed Nimer of American University that inform schools, employers and medical facilities about the Muslim view of practical issues, for instance:

* Muslim students and workers should be accommodated in celebrating two annual Eids (festivals). However, scheduling is tricky because the exact date depends on sighting of the new moon and isn’t fixed till the night before. During the Ramadan fasting month, students should be allowed to spend lunchtimes outside cafeterias and be excused from strenuous physical activity. Many Muslims will be reluctant to mark celebrations of other religions’ holidays, and will shun workplace events if alcohol is served.

* Because “Islam puts great emphasis on modesty, chastity and morality,” sex education class materials should be available for review and parents granted “the option to remove their children from all or part of the program.” Since Muslims often feel social studies and history classes “contribute to religious prejudice,” qualified Muslim educators should help choose textbooks.

* “Some Muslims may be hesitant to recite the pledge of allegiance.” Many parents teach students to stand but not recite it. The U.S. Supreme Court granted the religious right of non-participation to Jehovah’s Witnesses decades ago.

* Similarly straightforward is handling Muslim aversion to food products using pork and alcohol (e.g. vanilla extract or Dijon mustard). School  and workplace cafeterias should clearly mark offending items and provide menu options.

* Five mandated prayers are recited each day, though believers vary in how rigidly to follow the exact times. (The three-a-day problem in Wisconsin is unusual.) Worshipers need 20-minute breaks and places to pray and to do ritual washing of the face, hands and feet. On Fridays, the midday prayers occur at mosques and require released time such as extended lunch periods.

Switzerland’s hand-shaking controversy involves Muslim modesty. Similarly, Muslims often do not look straight in the eyes of persons of the opposite sex, which should not be misunderstood as an insult or unwillingness to communicate. And medical personnel should recognize that Muslims want doctors and nurses of the same gender whenever possible, and otherwise accommodate modesty scruples.

On that, the European Union's highest court ruled May 31 that a company in Belgium is allowed to fire a Muslim office receptionist who insisted on wearing her headscarf. And in the U.S., CAIR may file a lawsuit over Sana Hamze, who announced May 30 she’ll attend Norwich University instead of The Citadel because that public military school won’t let her wear ahijab head covering. Muslim women’s modesty practice of non-revealing garb and headdresses is well-known (specifics vary widely), but also men and boys must remain covered from navel to knee.

Those requirements can conflict with school gym classes. And regarding the Obama Administration’s nationwide  transgender policy, note that CAIR says “private showers should be made available, or gym classes could be scheduled in a late period allowing the student to shower at home.”

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