(CNSNews.com) -- After defending a Virginia teacher who made her students copy the Muslim statement of faith known as the shahada as part of a calligraphy assignment, Augusta County Schools shut down the entire school system Friday when a backlash erupted on social media.
“While there has been no specific threat of harm to students, schools and school offices will be closed Friday, December 18, 2015,” Augusta County Public Schools said in a statement Thursday, noting the “voluminous phone calls and electronic mail” it had received “locally and from outside the area.”
The controversy ignited after parents learned that World Geography teacher Cheryl LaPorte had required her ninth-grade students at Riverheads High School in Staunton to copy the shahada, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, as part of an assignment on world religions.
Reciting the shahada is the first step in converting to Islam.
The passage translated from Arabic states: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
LaPorte also invited her female students to try on headscarves, the Shilling Show first reported.
“Neither these lessons, nor any other lesson in the world geography course, are an attempt at indoctrination to Islam or any other religion, or a request for students to renounce their own faith or profess any belief,” Superintendent Eric Bond said in a statement.
“They were simply asked to attempt to artistically render written Arabic in order to understand its artistic complexity,” he said, adding that the assignment was consistent with the state’s Standards of Learning and that the scarf female students were invited to try on “was not an actual Islamic religious hijab.”
But Bond’s reassurances did not assuage the 100 parents and community members who attended a forum at the Good News Ministries Church near the school to protest the assignment and point out that a public school teacher who required students to copy passages from the Bible would be fired, the Staunton News Leader reported.
“These children were deceived when they were told it was calligraphy. This is not calligraphy, this is a language,” said Kimberly Herndon, a parent of six who posted a protest on Facebook December 12 after her son brought home the assignment.
Herndon also said on Facebook that the teacher “has passed that Koran around that room every single day since the beginning. That is wrong. Where is the bible? Can I take a bible and place it in every single class room tomorrow?”
Herndon said she and another parent met with school officials who “were forthright in admitting that the teacher made a mistake in assigning the children to copy the shahada…also it was admitted that asking the students to put on the head dressing of the Islamic woman was a bad choice in that there was no representation of any other apparel of any other culture or religion.”
The school system later said it had removed the shahada from the curriculum. “Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state Board of Education and the Commonwealth’s Standards of Learning, a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future," it said in a statement.
CNSNews.com called and emailed Riverheads Principal Max Lowe for a comment, but he did not respond.