A children's theater program centered around Muslim stories has been suspended at a New York City public school because critics say it violated the constitutional line separating church and state.
The Brooklyn Children's Theatre has worked for years with P.S. 230, an elementary school in Kensington, Brooklyn, with a reportedly large population of Muslim students. Amy Graves, executive director of the theater company, had applied for a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to write four musicals centered around Muslim children: Two of the musicals were to be written by young students and all of them were to be performed by children at the P.S. 230 and at the theater's community space.
Graves said the goal was to "make Muslim children the protagonists of the story so we were seeing the world through their eyes," to create empathy for Muslim kids and to normalize their experience.
But one of the plays, "Sailimai and the Four Riddles," based on a Chinese-Muslim folktale, sparked controversy.
In the version written by the children who attended a playwriting workshop last summer, Sailimai, the lead in the musical, is a girl who wears a hijab. At school, her principal threatens her father's job unless she solves four riddles, which she eventually does with the help of gratitude, kindness and, as she says, her faith.
A parent at P.S. 230 saw the script and thought that the protagonist's expression of her faith promoted religion in a public school and contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It agreed and sent a complaint to the school in January. In response, P.S. 230 cancelled the two previously scheduled daytime performances of "Sailimai." A note to the parents said it was due to "technical difficulties." The after-school performance was allowed to continue.
Katherine Franke is a law professor at Columbia University and director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project that examines places where religious liberty conflicts with other fundamental rights. Franke reviewed the script for "Sailimai" and the complaint on WNYC's request and afterwards said, "This to me is shocking, because they're absolutely wrong on the law."
Franke maintained that the musical didn't infringe on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment which prohibits the government from endorsing or preferring a religion. "This is a basic right of the First Amendment, that you can teach, but not preach about religion in public schools," she said.
In order for the musical to run afoul of the First Amendment, she said students watching it would have had to be compelled to pray or to participate in religious ritual of some sort.
The school principal didn't comment for this story. The Department of Education said, “The arts are a powerful educational tool and we encourage our schools to use them as way of exploring and celebrating our City’s incredible diversity."
The Muslim Voices program remains suspended at P.S. 230 until all four scripts are revised, though BCT continues to work with the school, putting on other shows. In the meantime, Graves at the Brooklyn Children's Theatre said she is planning to license the four Muslim Voices shows to community theaters — and perhaps schools — across the country.
Editor's note: Updated to clarify that only the Muslim Voices program was suspended.