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Mosque visit violated student rights, Wellesley mother's lawyer says

Posted by Leslie Anderson  September 21, 2010 07:58 PM

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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 head 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 met 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 Roxbury mosque. The group was a vocal critic of the mosque, the largest in New England, when it opened in 2009.

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 today.

Bella T. Wong, Wellesley’s school superintendent, apologized last week for the participation of students in the prayer service. Students should not have been allowed to participate, she said, adding that teachers would be given clearer guidance in the future about acceptable behavior on field trips.

In an interview today, however, she said that 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 decided not to allow their child to participate, 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.

‘‘l firmly believe in the separation of church and state, and there’s nothing out there in the literature and guidance that suggests that this is clearly a violation of that separation,’’ she said. ‘‘If there was something out there that told me that there was, then we wouldn’t do it.’’

Meltzer said he spent the summer researching the legal issue. Although he couldn’t find any federal or state Supreme Judicial Court decisions specifically about whether public school students can visit houses of worship, Meltzer said decisions about prayer and religious benedictions in schools give some guidance.

Those decisions make clear, he argued, that younger students are not capable of consenting to a religious message — and therefore, he said, taking them to a place of worship is a form of coercion.

Now Meltzer said he is drafting a letter to Wellesley’s town counsel, laying out remedies for the practice he believes is unconstitutional. He wouldn’t say what the suggested remedies would be, but said he will send the letter within two weeks.

‘‘That’s something I think we’ll be able to work out with the town,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m hoping we won’t ever have to file a case like this.’’

Albert Robinson, Wellesley’s town counsel, said he spoke to Meltzer briefly about the issue. Meltzer told him he would send a letter outlining his objection to fields trips such as the one to Roxbury.

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.

‘‘This kind of issue generates a lot of interest and a lot of personal feelings,’’ he said, ‘‘and carving those away from what the legal principles are, in my opinion, a balancing.’’

In a statement at tonight's School Committee, Wong said the mosque visit was part of a social studies course that aimed to provide "authentic experiences" for students and provide them with a platform for critical thinking.

She said the Roxbury mosque had been chosen both for its urban location and the architecture of the building.

Wong said the students' participation in the prayer was a mistake, and that next time teachers would provide better guidance to students about acceptable behavior on such field trips.

"We care deeply about our teaching practices," Wong said. "We're open to feedback."

Globe correspondent Katrina Ballard contributed to this report. Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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