A Michigan Catholic high school run by the Christian Brothers of Ireland is under fire for the creation of a “sacred space” for its Muslim students to worship during school hours.
“We don’t discriminate based on race, creed, color,” said school principal John Birney in defense of his decision to maintain the non-Christian prayer space despite the school’s official Catholic status.
Although the majority of the student body is Catholic, the all-boy Bloomfield Hills school accepts students of other faiths and currently some 12 Muslim boys study there.
Parents of several of the school’s students have protested the measure, with one mother claiming it was “unconscionable” and would undermine her son’s Christian education. Parents pay the school $11,750 in yearly tuition for their children to study in a Catholic environment.
According to local television station WXYZ, “a dozen or so angry parents” have expressed their disapproval of the school’s move to formalize a non-Christian prayer room on a Catholic school’s property.
Birney defends the decision, saying that making accommodation for non-Catholic students is in line with the thinking and teaching at the school, and that “all the Catholic hospitals in town do this.”
“Is [the prayer room] something that compromises our faith and identity, or is it in fact consistent with the respect that we have? We are Catholic in the sense that we share the ‘good news.’ We are not Catholic in the sense, ‘Hey, if you’re not Catholic, don’t bother coming here,’” Birney said.
“When the question was, ‘Is there a place that I can pray?’ the answer that evolved was yes,” he said. “We have this sacred space available for you if you want it.”
Birney also said that Muslim students in the school are required to conform to the Catholic curriculum for all students, and since they respect the Catholic faith the school should respect theirs.
In a statement released last week regarding Muslim immigration and religious liberty, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron declared: “Fifty years ago, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that the Catholic Church treats with respect those who practice the religion of Islam. And for these past 50 years, Catholics and Muslims in southeastern Michigan have enjoyed warm relations marked by a spirit of mutual respect and esteem.”
Birney said that a handful of boys use the prayer room on a regular basis, including one Tibetan Buddhist. “I guess the way I would view it, we’re a Catholic school; we continue to teach the Catholic faith and continue to celebrate our faith but we have other faiths here,” he said.
Brother Rice is not the only Catholic school to create a non-Christian prayer space. In 2012, a Catholic high school in Ontario, Canada, created an Islamic prayer room.
A spokesman for the Detroit Archdiocese told the Huffpost in an email that Birney had reached out to them for guidance.
“The Archdiocese of Detroit has provided Brother Rice High School with information in regards to the precedent in the Catholic Church for respecting the religious liberty — including the ability to pray — for non-Christians who are present at a great number of Church institutions worldwide, including schools, universities, hospitals, soup kitchens and shelters,” archdiocesan spokesman Joe Kohn said.
“Such respect for non-Christian people of faith is in keeping with what the Church teaches and what the Church Fathers put forth at the Second Vatican Council,” he said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome