Mosque trip violated rights, lawyer says
Threatens to sue Wellesley schools without resolution
A lawyer for the Wellesley mother who allegedly recorded five sixth-grade boys participating in an Islamic prayer service during a school field trip is arguing that taking students to any house of worship violates their civil rights.
Robert N. Meltzer, a Framingham lawyer who specializes in constitutional law, said that when the Wellesley School District took the students to a Roxbury mosque last May, the trip violated the students’ First Amendment rights because they were too young to consent to the religious message. Even if some of the students had not bowed their heads during the prayer service, Meltzer said, the trip would still have been inappropriate.
“We view this as a very simple constitutional law case,’’ said Meltzer, adding that he will file a federal class-action lawsuit against the school district if the disagreement cannot be resolved. “We believe that a school cannot bring middle-school children to any house of worship. Period.’’
Meanwhile, the group that sparked the controversy by publicizing video footage of the trip to the Islamic Society of Boston Community Center said the chaperone shot the video at their request.
The Wellesley mother, who had spoken with members of the group before the field trip, has remained anonymous.
“When she contacted us, we asked her to video the trip,’’ said Dennis Hale, a member of the board of directors of Americans for Peace & Tolerance.
The group posted the video online, arguing that the school should not have taken the students to the mosque.
The group was a vocal critic of the mosque, the largest in New England, when it opened in 2009.
But Meltzer disputed the notion that his client had recorded the mosque visit at the behest of Americans for Peace & Tolerance.
Mosque officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Bella T. Wong, Wellesley’s school district superintendent, apologized last week for the participation of students in the prayer service, adding that teachers would be given clearer guidance in the future about acceptable behavior on field trips.
Yesterday, however, she said she still believes that taking field trips to supplement classroom learning is a valuable educational experience. In past years, sixth-graders in the world religions class visited another mosque in Wayland. But this year, the department decided to take students to the new mosque in Roxbury.
“Part of it is that we are in a suburb and it was an attractive option to go into the city,’’ she said. “It was sort of another added benefit to expose students to diversity.’’
Parents had to sign consent forms allowing their children to visit the mosque; the parents of one student declined to give permission, she said.
Wong said no decisions had been made yet about field trips for the religion class next year.
She said she had not spoken to Meltzer, but doesn’t share his belief that any field trip to a house of worship is unconstitutional.
Meltzer said he is drafting a letter to Wellesley’s town counsel, laying out remedies for the practice he believes is unconstitutional.
He did not elaborate, but said he will send the letter within two weeks.
Albert Robinson, Wellesley’s town counsel, said he spoke to Meltzer briefly about the issue. Robinson said he didn’t know of any legal precedents that would ban schools from taking students to a place of worship, and although allowing some to participate in prayer was wrong, he didn’t think the school district had erred in scheduling the trip to the mosque.
Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.