An Augusta County, Virginia, teacher was accused by a local church and some angry parents indoctrinating her students. She was following a state mandated curriculum on comparative religion that introduced a basic element of Islamic faith. As a result of the furor, schools in that county are closed today.
The local church and about a hundred parents planned a rally demanding that the teacher be fired, but this was met with a flood of reaction on social media in support of the educator.
Cheryl LaPorte, a veteran teacher with Augusta County Schools, had asked students to practice Arabesque calligraphy by copying an Islamic statement of faith, known as the shahada, as part of a class on world religions, including Islam.
Initial reaction from some Christian parents included calls for LaPorte’s firing for “violating children’s religious beliefs.” However, both the Virginia Department of Education and Augusta County Superintendent Eric Bond have reviewed the material and found it in line with state standards and said the lesson did not violate student rights.
Former students of LaPorte, concerned citizens and parents have taken to social media to ask the parents who initiated the case against LaPorte to stop.
An event page created to rally outraged parents to a forum Tuesday night at a rural church near Riverheads High School was taken over with posts criticizing the actions of those who created the event. It was eventually taken off Facebook on Wednesday.
Some parents were outraged at what they saw as an attempt to proselytize Islam in a public school, a concern that has been echoed by parents in districts across the country over lessons about Islam. In Tennessee, there has been an uproar over teaching about Islam and ancient Islamic civilization to middle schoolers, prompting state lawmakers to consider legislation limiting the teaching of world religions to high schoolers,according to the Tennessean. A parent in Fairfax County, Va., also reported what she found to be inappropriate lessons about Islam at a school there last year.
But experts say that teaching about religion is critical in public schools as religion — including Islam — is essential to understanding everything from ancient history to current events. Religious literacy has taken on an especially important role now, as religion has become a regular part of political rhetoric in part because of fears of terrorism linked to jihad. That makes it even more important for schools to teach about it, experts say.
“To be an educated person, to be a citizen, to be part of the global conversation, to be engaged in our world, religious literacy is essential,” said Charles C. Haynes, the vice president of the Newseum Institute and the Religious Freedom Center. “More important than that is how are we going to live with one another in one of the most religiously diverse society in the world without understanding one another?”