Wichita Elementary School Takes Down Display About Islam After Conservatives Flip Out

When students attended the first day of school at Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary in Wichita, Kansas last week, they saw a bulletin board displaying the core beliefs of one of the world’s largest religions: The Five Pillars of Islam.

As far as displays go, this one pretty unimpressive. And uninformative. There’s almost literally no useful information in that display. I mean, it doesn’t even explain what the Five Pillars are…

But somehow, conservatives found a reason to freak out about it. The Facebook page Prepare to Take America Back posted the image with a caption that made a supposedly factual claim with no basis in reality:

Students At Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary School In Wichata Kanas.

Were Met With This Their First Day Of School.
A School That Banned All Forms Of Christian Prayer.

This can not stand.

I’m shocked. Why would a school in Wichata Kanas ban Christian prayer?!

Oh. Right. They made that up. They’re Christians who want to be watchdogs of religious liberty… but, since there are no actual problems of Christians not being able to pray, they just make things up.

What they’re referring to are instances where public schools (or church/state separation groups) put a stop to the promotion of religious beliefs in a school. You can’t say a Christian prayer over a loudspeaker. You can’t force kids to read a Bible verse at the beginning of the day. You can’t teach Creationism in a science class as if there’s any merit to it.

No one’s against teaching about religion — in fact, I wish they would do more of it. Let’s compare and contrast the beliefs of all the major faiths. Maybe it’ll force students to think about why everyone else is wrong but they, somehow, are right.

The Wichita Eagle reports that the school, unfortunately, took down the display after the negative attention, but they issued a statement earlier this week explaining what this was really all about:

As part of the core knowledge curriculum, which is overseen by the national Core Knowledge Foundation, children are introduced in early grades to major world religions, beginning with a focus on geography and major symbols and figures.

“The purpose is not to explore the matters of theology, but to understand the place of religion and religious ideas in history,” the district statement said. “The Core Knowledge goal is to familiarize, not proselytize; to be descriptive, not prescriptive.”

Arensman added that Wichita public schools have not banned Christian prayer, as the online photograph alleges.

“Students and staff have the right to engage in private prayer or religious activities as long as it’s not disruptive,” she said.

That’s… perfectly reasonable. Which is probably why the right-wing group took offense to it.

By the way, elsewhere in the school, there’s a picture of The Last Supper, partly to study “the Renaissance period” and partly, one would think, to depict Christianity.

State Rep. Dennis Hedke (R-Wichita) responded to the display with the expected overreaction we’ve come to expect from his party:

[Hedke] said the way the school teaches about Islam glosses over some of the more unsavory aspects of the religion, such as Jihad and the annihilation of Israel.

“If you’re going to talk about Islam and make it sound like it’s another one of those religions that needs to be understood and contemplated by mankind, there’s a serious misunderstanding,” Hedke said.

Yeah… let’s teach the fourth graders about jihad. I’m sure that’ll go over well.

The school’s goal is to educate children about the various world religions, some of which they may never have been exposed to. What fringe groups do with those beliefs is so far beyond the scope of an elementary curriculum. There’s no reason, at that age, to be discussing the bombings of abortion clinics by Christians or the religious component of the 9/11 attacks.

The second part of his statement may be even worse. It suggests that people should embrace ignorance instead of acquiring a better understanding of the faith and how it might motivate people. Of course we should study Islam — not because it grasps some higher truth, but because our country’s own policies and decisions are often made in response to its adherents.

Students living in Wichita, of all places, would benefit tremendously from understanding the beliefs of people who don’t typically live in their community.

Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, rightly flips this situation and points out the hypocrisy of the right-wingers:

Imagine, for a moment, that instead of singling out Islam, someone had posted a photo of the Last Supper display and attacked the school for promoting Christianity. I guarantee that the same “take back America” crowd would have been first in line to defend the right of the school to put up the Christian image.

Minneha administrators and teachers should have stood their ground.

Such teaching about religions is not only constitutional; it is essential for giving students the understanding of the role of religion in history and society necessary for a good education and citizenship in a diverse society.

School officials said that the Islam display will go back up later in the fall when they begin the world religions unit. I hope they stick to that plan and educate students on the core beliefs of Islam — and the other major faiths, too.

On the other hand, if you want to see a whole lot of bigotry and paranoia, check out the comment thread under that Facebook picture.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.