When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton learned that Muslim students at a high school in Frisco were using an empty classroom to pray, his office raised the alarm.
Liberty High School has set aside a spare classroom for students to pray in for the last seven years. Muslim students use the room to observe Friday prayers.
In a letter sent to Frisco school district superintendent Jeremy Lyon on behalf of Paxton’s office on Friday, Deputy Attorney General Andrew Leonie raised concerns that the prayer room was reserved only for Muslim students to the exclusion of those from other faiths.
“It appears that students are being treated differently based on their religious beliefs,” Leonie wrote. “Such a practice, of course, is irreconcilable with our nation’s enduring commitment to religious liberty.”
Paxton’s office issued a press release claiming the prayer room “may violate the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott also tweeted that the attorney general was “looking into” these concerns ― which, according to school district spokesman Chris Moore, were largely non-existent before Friday.
Leonie’s letter referenced an article published by the school news outlet, Wingspan, which centered around the prayer room’s use by Muslim students but also noted that the room is used by students of other faiths.
“We have other religious student groups that meet maybe before school or maybe after school,” Liberty High principal Scott Warstler told Wingspan. “As long as it’s student-led, where the students are organizing and running it, we pretty much as a school stay out of that and allow them their freedom to practice their religion.”
Moore further clarified to The Washington Post that “all sorts of folks” use the prayer room. “Muslims pray, Baptists pray, Catholics pray, Buddhists pray, Hindu students pray.”
Warstler set up the prayer room in 2009 after noticing that many Muslim students would leave campus on Fridays to drive with their parents to the local mosque for prayers. Sometimes they’d miss up to two hours of school to observe the weekly service, he told NPR member station KERA.
“It gives us a way to pray in a classroom and then go straight back to class,” junior Sarah Qureshi said in the Wingspan article. “It takes five minutes instead of having to leave school, get in the car, and go with my parents to the actual masjid and then coming back.”
Leonie stated that his letter was a follow up to an “initial inquiry” which “left several questions unanswered.”
Lyon responded to Leonie on Friday, noting that the deputy attorney general’s letter was the first he was hearing of the office’s concern. “What initial inquiry are you referring to? To Frisco ISD’s knowledge, it has not received any inquiry from the OAG on this issue,” Lyon wrote.
Without any evidence of this “initial inquiry,” Lyon argued, the actions of the attorney general’s office constituted little more than a “publicity stunt...to politicize a non-issue.”
Marc Rylander, director of communications for Paxton’s office, told The Huffington Post he was in contact with the school district’s attorneys who had assured him “that students of all faith, or no faith, may now use this meeting room during non-instructional time on a first-come, first-served basis for student-led activities.”
The Texas attorney general, who filed an amicus brief in support of President Donald Trump’s travel ban in February, recently won a different kind of religious liberty battle.
In December, a middle school principal in Killeen, Texas ordered the school nurse’s aide to take down a six-foot poster with a biblical quote from the animation special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that read: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord.” Paxton helped the nurse’s aid sue the district, the principal, the superintendent and the school board, and they won the case.
“Religious discrimination towards Christians has become a holiday tradition of sorts among certain groups,” Paxton said in a statement following the court’s ruling. “I am glad to see that the court broke through the left’s rhetorical fog and recognized that a commitment to diversity means protecting everyone’s individual religious expression.”
This post has been updated to include additional comment from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office.