Muslim parents, Willmar schools reach agreement on prayer time

A few Somali parents in Willmar complained that the public schools weren't allowing their Muslim children to step out of class for daily prayer. Some didn't send their children to school last week in protest.

Today, school officials said they won't change their policy, which allows students to pray during lunch time and between classes. For now, families have reluctantly agreed to send their children to school, but the issue may resurface later in the school year.

This is the first school year Somali parents have had an issue with Willmar public schools over when their children can pray. A few children informed their parents that they weren't allowed to step out of class to pray for five minutes.

Today, Willmar public school officials met with a Somali parent to listen to parents' concerns over prayer time. School officials say they're sticking to their original policy.

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Mark Miley is the principal at Willmar Junior High School. He says at a meeting six years ago, Somali families agreed that their children could pray during lunch time and between periods.

"And it was everyone at the table, 'Thank you, this will work well for us.' Not just one year, not just two years, not just three years, not just four years, not just five years. We're going on six years here," said Miley.

Miley says everyone at that meeting, including parents, agreed that stepping out during class to pray would be disruptive. He says he doesn't understand why it's an issue this year.

"When they say to me, you don't allow our children to pray, that's not true. They're provided a spot during non-instructional time," said Miley.

Muslims observe prayer five times a day. They use both the moon and the sun as a guide for the Islamic calendar and on prayer times. This month, during Ramadan, the midday prayer falls during class, not lunch, time.

Willmar resident Abdulcadir Gaal is not happy a few individuals made an agreement with the schools six years ago on behalf of the entire Somali community in Willmar.

"Any leader or anybody cannot make an agreement upon a religious thing that has been going on for centuries, for a millenia," said Gaal.

Gaal says he doesn't remember the policy being that strict in past years. He believes his children have always been able to step out of class for five minutes to pray. The junior high school principal says it's possible some teachers may have allowed children to step out without his knowledge.

Gaal feels the school isn't making an effort to truly accommodate the needs of Muslim children.

"In the scriptures it says God loves the most he who keeps punctuality in prayer, loosely translated. If 1:30 is the time, you have to make a positive effort to go to pray," said Gaal.

The daily prayer schedule is calculated based on the number of daylight hours. Chris Schumacher is the Executive Director of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. The civil rights organization serves the Muslim community on issues dealing with religious discrimination.

Schumacher says in Minnesota prayer schedules can vary widely, because the daylight hours during winter are so few compared to summer.

If you think about, if the amount of daylight changes by a minute or a few minutes each day, consequently the prayer time would change a minute or a few minutes each day. It does change gradually. And over a month, you will see during certain times of year a big change," said Schumacher.

For example, in September, the evening prayer at sun down changes from 7:50 p.m. at the beginning of the month to 6:56 p.m. at the end of the month.

"That's almost an hour change over the course of the month," explained Schumacher.

For example, Schumacher says today the midday prayer can take place any time between 1:15 and 4:00 p.m. But he says that may not always work for the individual, since in Islam it's better to pray at the beginning of that time frame.

Schumacher says one student, who asked CAIR to negotiate prayer time with his college, wasn't willing to push back that time, so he dropped his class and took it another semester.

"Some Muslims are willing to give up more to make that prayer early than others who are more flexible. And that's just, I guess, personal preference," said Schumacher.

And that's the personal preference of parents like Abdulcadir Gaal.

For now Gaal says children will continue to go to school and pray as soon as they get home. Then in early November, midday prayer time changes and falls during lunch break. Midday prayer time will fall during class time again next year beginning in March, when this issue may arise again.