Sunday, April 19, 2015

Covered Girl Challenge in Public High School



A Muslim Student Association group at a public high school in Mason, Ohio organized a voluntary school-wide event called “Covered For a Day.” The purpose of this event was to have female students wear a hijab, or a headscarf worn by Islamic women, on one day to raise cultural awareness. The school’s Student Activities Department sent out an email to parents of the high school students stating that the primary goal of this event was to “celebrate the school’s unique and diverse student body.” Along with the female student participation of wearing hijabs, pupils both male and female were also invited to an open discussion during school hours. Parents who wanted their children to partake were asked to fill out a permission slip.

The school began receiving many complaints in the immediate aftermath of this email. The principal of Mason High School, Mindy McCarty-Stewart, then sent a follow up email apologizing. “This previous communication should not have come from out Student Activities Department because this was a student-led initiative, rather than a school-sponsored activity.” McCarty-Stewart went on to say that after much consideration, the ‘Covered Girl Challenge’ event was cancelled.

I do not believe that the event should have been cancelled. While I understand how some could view this event as controversial, many critics were simply angry due to the prejudice they felt towards Islam. One parent responded in an email “You’re spending our money to support Islam…” While another wrote, “Stop trying to down play the horrible things that have occurred in this nation at the hands of Muslims.” It is clear that people have negative stereotypes about a religion and its practices. This event was singled out because many people did not feel that this was an acceptable religion to be celebrated or respected. The school cancelling this event suggests that it agrees with this idea.

I do not believe that this is an establishment of religion because the school did not sponsor it. The principal expressly pointed out that it was a student-run initiative. Taxpayer dollars were in no way being used to support this event or any religion at all. I do agree that the school made a mistake in using its Student Activities Department to endorse the event, however. The school should not have played a role in actively supporting and raising awareness for this religiously affiliated event. The event would have been less controversial had some students created an event on Facebook, for example. That being said, I feel that it was possibly a violation of rights to prohibit the students from participating in this day of cultural awareness. Cancelling this event, in my opinion, is the school’s way of validating negative stereotypes about a religion and the culture that comes alongside it. The principal set a bad example by letting the intimidators win and cancelling a diverse and cultural event.

In my opinion, the students of Mason High School have a right to organize and celebrate religious diversity at school, so long as it is not intrusive, harmful, or school-sponsored. This event clearly was not harming anyone. It was simply raising awareness for a culture and religion that many students in the school identify with. Cancelling this event most likely alienates the Muslim students attending MHS even further by suggesting that celebrating their diversity is not a worthy task and that their religion and practices are dangerous. Islam often has a negative connotation, and these students were simply hoping to lessen this stereotype within their community.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion. These students should be able to practice their religion and should be able to have discussions about their religion. Furthermore, this was a completely voluntary event and no students were required to participate in it if they did not wish to. I do not believe that this event would have been unconstitutional. In fact, I see a possible constitutional violation by prohibiting the event. As the political cartoon above suggests, would the school cancel a student-led initiative for a ‘wear your cross’ day? Islam is being singled out here because it is not deemed an acceptable religion, and that seems to be preferencing one religion over another. Overall, I do not believe that the school should have cancelled this student-run diversity event.

What do you think? Was the school simply working to not establish a religion? Or did MHS give in to bigotry and discrimination?

8 comments:

Libby W said...

I fully agree with the author that the school should not have cancelled this event. Holding the event is constitutional as long as the school is not endorsing it and it is voluntary to all students. I also agree that it would appear to be unconstitutional to prohibit the event because it is directly going against the students' rights because they have the freedom to hold this event. The cartoon that was put in with the article clearly sums up the main reason why the school cancelled the event. Muslim students are put in a separate category than the majority, and parents feel uncomfortable with their children partaking in such an event because they have this negative connotation with the religion. As long as their is no school endorsement of this event it is constitutional, and it is unconstitutional for the school to not allow it.

Abby Copp said...

I definitely agree with Liz and Libby here, and I would not have found fault with the event. By the event's mere description, it would have been student-initiated, completely voluntary, not receiving of public or school funding, and therefore constitutional. I also think that a strong argument can be made for the fact that the primary purpose for the event was to celebrate cultural diversity, not to celebrate a specific religion (even though that does come along with it).

Tommy S said...

I agree with many of the author's points. However, I do not think that one religion is being preferenced over another. I'm not entirely sure of the past events the school has held but it doesn't appear that they've allowed other religious groups to hold events. Also, I do not think it is unconstitutional to deny the group from having the event because it is during school hours. It might be different if it was after school hours.

Ana M. said...

It is obvious that parents misunderstood the purpose of this activity. Personally, I do not think this was unconstitutional. This was a student lead activity to bring awareness. Like the author mentioned above, this activity was not sponsored by the school therefore, there is no establishment of religion.

Emily C. said...

The school took a separationist approach in deciding to cancel the Covered Girl event, and made an unconstitutional decision in doing so. An accommodationist approach--allowing all religious demonstrations to occur on campus--would be the constitutional decision. The school is not establishing a religion by permitting groups to express themselves on campus, yet they are preferring non-religion by prohibiting religious exercises.

Brandon Farrell said...

I think it is clear that the parents were unaware of the true purpose and circumstance of this event. This event was student run and the email sent should have informed the parents that the school was in no way funding this or supporting it. I do not think it was unconstitutional because the school must regulate what occurs on school ground during school hours. As Tommy states, having the demonstrations after school school hours may be different.

Courtney W. said...

I agree with the author in that I do not think holding this event would have been unconstitutional. The event was lead by students to increase awareness about a culture as well as a religion and was not endorsed by the school. The fact that the school cancelled the event sends a really terrible message towards Muslim students in the school district. In canceling the event, as Emily pointed out, the school was supporting non-religion over religion.

Nneoma I. said...

I believe that this event is completely constitutional. I think it is important to note that it is student run, and that clear the school of any association with the religion or favoring of its practices. There is a secular purpose in educating student about various religious practices. I believe that although it is a fine line between appropriate and unconstitutional, the intent and follow through of the even was made with precaution to not establish any religion.