You have probably heard about the angry reaction to a homework assignment in a geography class at Riverheads High School in Staunton, Virginia. In an attempt to show students the artistry of the letters of the Arabic language, pupils were asked to copy a phrase that is translated "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah." This was a standard assignment from a textbook, not one created by the teacher.
While some of the responses to the assignment may have been over the top, it is easy to see why many were outraged. The phrase that students were asked to recreate is known as the shahada, the first of the five pillars of Islam. From an evangelical Christian perspective, the assignment would be roughly equivalent to asking all students to copy John 3:16. Many Christians balked at students being forced to learn in a public school the fundamental statement of faith of another religion and it's not hard to see why.
This episode illustrates why it is crucial to preserve separation of church and state. Learning about the faith statements of other religions is a fruitful exercise in the proper setting. Loving our neighbors certainly includes getting to know them, including their religion if they have one, especially if that religion is different.
As an academic exercise, students should learn about other religions. Yet they should not be required to write or say the central affirmation of faith of any religion. The former is an important educational exercise about our world while the latter could be construed as a confession of faith.
This incident shows how problematic it would be to remove the wall of separation between church and state. If government forces religious instruction on any citizen then that citizen's religious liberty is abridged. If all are not free then none are free. The best way to ensure religious liberty for all is through the mechanism of church-state separation.
Certainly the timing of this case is unfortunate. Again, Christians are called to love their neighbors, including their Muslim neighbors. Recently our public discourse has included some vitriolic statements against Muslims and the event in Staunton, Virginia could further inflame such sentiments which is tragic. Nonetheless, this controversial homework assignment and the reaction to it reminds us that we are blessed to live in a land that enshrines religious liberty in its founding documents through separation of church and state.