Why Are the Muslims Sitting at a Separate Table?

For the second time in two days, there’s a story of interest to atheists happening in my ultra-local neck of the woods.

At a middle school, a 7th grader saw something he found suspicious:

Seventh-grader Ryan Vandewiel didn’t quite understand something during his lunch hour at Prairie View School in Tinley Park.

Muslim students at the school could sit at a separate table, away from other non-Muslim students, during Ramadan, which in 2007 was from Sept. 13 to Oct. 12.

During Ramadan, practicing Muslims fast from pre-dawn until sunset. Prairie View Principal Joel Martin said this separate table is available to ease the temptation for these kids and “to provide the best environment for the kids in the long-run.”

Vandeweil saw it as segregation, and thought Catholic students should be able to have a separate table during the Lenten season, a 40-day stretch in which practicing Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays.

He started a petition and had around 100 students sign it…

“It wasn’t so much that Catholics or I would feel tempted during Lent. I’m a vegetarian,” the 13-year-old said. “I felt left out because there were separate tables offered to a different religion.”

The best quotation:

“I think that if someone is good in their faith they can (abstain) on their own, because they truly believe in what they are doing,” [Vandeweil] said. “Everybody should be offered a separate table for their beliefs or nobody should.”

What the legal answer to this? No lawsuit has been filed or anything, but it seems if the Muslim students chose to sit by themselves, there would be no problem. However, if the school is setting aside a table specially for Muslim students, that would be wrong (and Ryan would be correct).

Not all the Muslim students sit at the special table, for what it’s worth.

Ryan even has an idea for his next step:

If nothing happens, here is my plan for next year. I will sit in the separate Muslim table, and when they tell me to move, I will ask why. They will say, “Because you’re not Muslim”. And I will still sit there because I have just as much a right as everybody else does. I’ll say I’m Muslim for a day if it comes to that. Mr. Martin said himself, though, that it is “unlikely” that anything will happen. We’ll see about that.

I’d love to see that happen.

(How many 13-year-olds do you know who are this socially conscious?!)

On a side note, when I was in high school, some students in the Humanities class did a project where they labeled every table in the lunch room. Above each table was a sign indicating which students sat there. There was a “JOCK” table and a “CHEERLEADER” table and a “BAND” table and a “NERD” table… awkward for just about everyone. Even though we all knew who sat where well before the labels were around.

But where you sat was your decision. Not the school’s.

Even though the principal at Prairie View is making a noble gesture in giving Muslims selective seating, it’s the wrong one.

(Thanks to Chris for the link!)


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Sudo

    The formula for government should be ‘un-religious’ as opposed to merely ‘un-Christian.’

    I think there would have been an uproar had the table been set aside for Lent in the first place, rather than a Ramadan table

    I agree with Ryan – separate tables for everybody, or separate tables for no one. This is like those cafeterias and other places that no longer serve pork because there is one Muslim employee who dines there.

  • Milena

    At my school, the Muslims mostly spend lunches in the library during Ramadan.

    Anyways, Ramadan is different from Lent. When observing Lent, people aren’t constantly starving, thursty and exhausted because they have to get up before sunrise to eat.

    I don’t see anything wrong with there being a separate table available. The way I understood it, the separate table was an option for Muslim students, so they did have a choice in the matter. I doubt anything would be done to stop non-Muslim students from sitting there, so it’s mostly symbolic, a gesture to show students of non-Christian faiths that their beliefs are taken into consideration. Perhaps it was the wrong gesture, but it’s definitely not discrimination against Catholics or forced segregation.

  • Milena

    By the way Hemant, is there a link to the full story? I’d like to read it, but I can’t find it anywhere in the post.

  • Oldman

    If I were fasting, I’d rather not be in a lunchroom, especially the first week

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Is having a designated table actually hurting anyone or costing anyone anything?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Milena — The link is fixed! Here it is.

    Mike — I don’t think the table is hurting anyone or costing anything. It’s just the principle of what they’re doing. They’re using religion as a way to set students apart (in this case, literally). That’s what the student is questioning. I’m sure you already knew that, but I think this is an issue the school would be wise to just stay out of.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    I don’t think it’s a big deal for a school district to simply be considerate of the needs of students. No one is forcing the Muslim students to sit there, and I doubt that non-Muslim students who wanted to sit there would be disallowed as long as they weren’t eating in front of them. (And it’s not like the students who are eating don’t have the whole rest of the cafeteria to sit in.) I think this is an instance where “principle” ought to bow to simple courtesy and kindness towards others.

  • Jen

    Of course the Muslim kids want to sit elsewhere- fasting is unhealthy! I remember a few years ago, a Muslim basketball player (who? I have no idea. Sports are boring) was playing pro basketball games and refusing water during these games. I can’t even imagine how bad that was for his body.

  • Sudo

    Sure, let’s have a separate table for the Muslims for Ramadan. Let’s add a prayer room so they can pray five times a day in private, too.

    Oh, I know, and while we’re at it, let’s let the Christian kids have a special moment of prayer in the morning, too, right between the Pledge of Allegiance and the announcements.

  • Sudo

    Double post.

  • geru

    Ugh. Seems everything always get so complicated when religion is involved. Like the simple procedure of finding a solid level surface to put your tray on. Mix in religion -> lawsuit! :)

    And it’s even more stupid considering that we’re dealing with a school cafeteria. This of course sound like something that was demanded by the parents, or implemented by some overzealous school official, certainly this wasn’t something the students had thought of.

    It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to be emphasizing cultural differences to young students, especially in cases like segregation during ‘special time periods’.

    “No no Billy, you’re a Jew, you don’t sit with the other kids during this time of the month.”

    Just doesn’t sound healthy.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to be emphasizing cultural differences to young students,

    huh? So teaching diversity and respect for other cultures is a bad thing?

  • steelman

    geru, your point is well taken. The teaching of diversity should not be done through segregation, and official reinforcement of peer pressure toward that end. Separate but equal is a flawed concept, lets not go down that path again. You start labeling tables, and you fast approach the breaking point of that zero sum game. How many special interest groups need to exist before there’s no group of which they’re supposedly all a part?

    I think diversity in this country ought to mean pluralism, in that groups are free to form their own, private organisations, with everyone enjoying the same, secular civil rights. When it comes to shared, public resources, however, we all need to share rather than begin marking out our own territory. A healthy diversity is not about an administration backed staking out of separate Muslim, Christian, Republican, Democrat, etc. territories on school property. That only reinforces an us versus them mentality, something that already happens enough among the adolescent student body.

  • theDentist

    nyeehhh… who cares?

  • Sudo

    huh? So teaching diversity and respect for other cultures is a bad thing?

    This isn’t technically ‘teaching’ per se, as much as it is showing the student body that it is permissible for certain groups to have special set-sides for that particular group only.

    Giving special rights to Muslims or other groups except Christians also feeds the persecution complex of the Christian right. By setting aside tables specifically for Muslims but not Catholics, you are essentially proving they’re correct- it isn’t about establishing a truly secular society, only an anti-Christian one.

  • Darryl

    Whoever said things get really complex when religion is involved is correct. On Mike’s side, I don’t see any “undue burden” placed upon anyone here, and I don’t see that the state has a compelling interest in not helping these students if they want it. But, it does potentially raise the “separate but equal” thing. This table does not segregate the students; since it’s a voluntary thing, they’re segregating themselves. So long as something like this does not get out of hand, then it’s their choice. Also, it should be remembered that whenever any recognizably different group sets themselves apart they risk raising the suspicions of some others, and engendering the “us versus them” mentality for some others. Anything that appears to be preferential treatment is a potential problem. Welcome to America.

  • Maria

    I agree with Ryan – separate tables for everybody, or separate tables for no one. This is like those cafeterias and other places that no longer serve pork because there is one Muslim employee who dines there.

    I agree

  • Sayler

    Aside from the fact that this seems really trivial
    There doesn’t seem to be a problem as long as reason that they children were separated out was because they were not eating … not because they were Muslims. That is, if some group of students were to decide to go on a hunger strike to protest something, then they too should also get separate tables. As long as this was the reason, which it appears to be from the way the article is worded, there really doesn’t seem to be any problem at all.

  • Darryl

    Aside from the fact that this seems really trivial

    It’s neither trivial, nor “really trivial.”

  • David D.G.

    I can see why the principal made the decision he did; I agree that it was a wrong call, but at least it was for the right reasons, and (if you’ll pardon the expression) “in good faith.”

    I really feel sorry for school administrators having to always work their way through minefields of religion and other First Amendment issues with thousands of students every day, just to try to get a day’s educational work done without getting their district sued. I can understand why so many of them always look so stressed out.

    ~David D.G.