Eleven-Year-Old Muslim Girl Harassed After Declining Bible From School Principal, ACLU of LA Charges

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
April 10, 2001 12:00 am

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ALEXANDRIA, LA-- The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed a lawsuit here today on behalf of an 11-year-old Muslim girl who was humiliated when she refused to accept a Bible handed out by her public school principal. Later, a teacher forced her to participate in a classroom quiz game about Jesus.

""The teaching of religion belongs in the home, the church, the synagogue, the temple and the mosque but not in public schools,"" said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.

""This little girl has been the target of severe persecution and harassment by her schoolmates because of her religious beliefs,"" Cook added. ""Principal John Cotton and other school officials prompted this cruelty with their actions and statements of religious intolerance.""

Yazied and Fatima Jabr, whose two children are the only Muslims who attend Paradise Elementary school in Pineville, filed a complaint with the ACLU after their daughter, Hesen, was made to accept a Bible and became the target of harassment at her school because she told classmates that her family does not read the Bible.

""You cannot imagine the heartbreak and the anguish of dealing with your children's doubt about their own faith, especially when they are still too young and immature to completely understand the differences between the faiths and what makes us all different,"" said Fatima Jabr, Hesen's mother. ""All we can hope is that others will treat our children in the way that we have taught them to treat others--with respect.""

According to the ACLU complaint, on December 14 2000, Hesen and the rest of her fifth-grade class were each presented with a Bible from Principal John Cotton. Hesen politely declined the offering, but Cotton told her to ""just take it."" Feeling pressured, she accepted the Bible.

Afterwards in her classroom, students called Hesen a ""Jesus-hater"" and told her that she would burn in hell. In an apparent attempt to quiet the students, Hesen's teacher told them that Hesen believed in Jesus, just ""not the same Jesus.""

The next day, Mrs. Jabr and her mother, Mona Odetalla, called Principal Cotton to discuss the incident. Cotton informed the two women that he had been distributing Bibles for 35 years, that no one had ever complained before, and that he saw no reason to stop.

Furthermore, according to the complaint, five days after the Bible incident Hesen's teacher led her students in a quiz game about Jesus and asked Hesen to be the scorekeeper because she would not know many of the answers.

The ACLU said that a majority of Supreme Court justices have recognized that a student in a classroom or other school setting has relatively little choice but to go along with school officials in such situations. Hesen had already learned that lesson with Mr. Cotton.

""The issue here is not whether one religion or faith is better than another, but about forcing one's faith on another person with no respect for that other person's right to practice their own beliefs,"" said Fatima Jabr.

""As practicing Muslims, we turn in prayer to God not once, but five times a day,"" she added. ""We believe in Jesus Christ and the miracle of his birth, which is why, when she came home that day in tears and told us what had happened, my husband and I were devastated.""

""We always taught our children to respect others' beliefs, and now our children were ridiculed because of theirs. Our daughter lost her best friends because of this incident, and suffered nightmares of burning in hell with her family. This was also compounded with the ordeal of our youngest son questioning our own beliefs and worrying about us going to hell,"" she said.

In a similar incident last year, a school district in Beauregard Parish settled a case after ACLU attorneys advised them of their obligations under the Constitution.

""Superintendent Patsy Jenkins and the Rapides Parish School Board can put an end to the Jabr family nightmare by confessing the error of their ways and conveying to their employees and the community that the law of the land must be obeyed,"" said the ACLU's Cook.

""We ask the law-abiding citizens of Rapides Parish to speak up by encouraging their public officials to follow the Constitution and the Golden Rule. That would be a blessing for the Jabr family and save the taxpayers' money for education instead of lawyers' fees,"" he said.

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