By Daymond Steer
CONWAY — Asked by the town to render an opinion on whether the Conway Public Library can legally host a N.H. Humanities-sponsored program about Islam in America later this month, Town Attorney Peter Malia said the town-run facility can put on the talk without violating the separation of church and state.
The opinion came after at least one local person threatened to sue.
The program, "A Short Course on Islam for Non Muslims," scheduled for April 18 at 6 p.m., will be presented by Charles A. Kennedy of Newbury.
Kennedy, a professor emeritus at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, teaches adult education courses at Colby-Sawyer College on topics such as religion in America. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale University's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures and is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
Mark Hounsell, chairman of the library board of trustees, said he sought the opinion from Malia.
"If someone tells me they are going to sue, I'm going to go to a lawyer to protect the people," Hounsell said Tuesday.
The legal threat, from a man named Arthur Haley (based on the email address that contained his name) was sent to this newspaper as well as to Rep. Frank McCarthy (R-Conway). Eventually, it worked its way to Hounsell.
"This is against the law, this is a public building paid for by us taxpayers of Conway," wrote Haley. "State and religion are to be separate. I will file a lawsuit against the town of Conway if this is allowed."
New Hampshire Humanities is an independent non-profit funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as by individuals, corporations and foundations.
Susan Hatem, associate director of N.H. Humanities, said her group stands by its programs and promised that those who attend will learn from the program.
Hounsell forwarded Malia's opinion to The Sun:
"It has long held that there is no violation of the establishment clause (or of the so-called "separation of church and state") for the government to sponsor education that discusses religion. Even if public schools cannot teach students religion, they certainly may teach students about religion.
"This was clarified by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 in the case of School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp. 374 U.S. 203 (1963). That case involved a school district that required students at the opening of each school day to read verses from the Holy Bible and then recite of the Lord's Prayer in unison. In holding that behavior unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court made certain to explain when religious instruction would be permissible.
"The U.S Supreme Court stated, 'It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.' Schempp, 374 U.S at 225.
"Ultimately, any question about the constitutionality on the Short Course on Islam for Non-Muslims would turn on whether by hosting it, the Conway Public Library is doing so for a religious or for a secular purpose. Given the course description as focusing on the interaction among major religions with regard to current events, there is no credibility to any argument that the Christian minister who is presenting the course is teaching Islam. Rather, he is simply teaching about Islam.
"Were anyone truly worried about the dissemination of Islamic thought in the Conway Public Library, they may be assuaged to learn that while the Library keeps one copy of the Qur'an in its collection, it has at least five separate versions of the Bible and one copy of the Torah."
McCarthy sent Haley's letter to various town officials with a note that said: "Received this from a constituent. Is there nothing we can do to put a stop to this madness."
Asked to respond to Malia's opinion, McCarthy wrote, "If, on a daily basis, hundreds of Christians were not being beheaded or burned alive, and ISIS threatening the world with the extinction of all non Muslims, would this be a topic of discussion?"
On Tuesday afternoon, Kennedy described to the Sun the talk he is scheduled to give.
"What I want to talk about is how Muslims in America today view their faith, how they practice their faith, how they have integrated into American society," said Kennedy. "In America, the Muslim population is slightly higher than average on their income and slightly higher than average on their college education."
Asked about how many Muslims there are in the United States, Kennedy said that is hard to determine but it works out to about 5-7 percent of the population.
Kennedy, who has traveled to Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait, Syria, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, said that Islam follows the same God as Judaism and Christianity.
The difference, he said, is Muslims “do not accept Jesus as the second person of the Trinity.” But, he said, “they do accept Jesus as a prophet.”
Muhammad was born in 570 in what is now Saudi Arabia.
"Islam was not spread by the sword, that's one of the myths," said Kennedy. "Islam was spread because it had a very simple and direct message that people could relate to: There is one God and that one God expects you to do certain things like pray and give to charity and to keep in check your desires and live a basically good life."
He said Islam actually has only a few requirements.
Like followers of Judaism, Muslims won't eat pork. They also are forbidden to drink wine. According to Kennedy, there is debate in the Muslim world over whether a Muslim can drink other types of alcohol.
"In the Quran it says you will not drink wine," said Kennedy. "I have known Muslims in various countries that have said, 'That doesn't say anything about whiskey or rum.'"
Kennedy said the intensity of religious practice in the Islamic world varies from place to place. Of the various Islamic sects — the Shia and the Sunni — he said they could loosely be compared with the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics.
"Just like any other human organization, there are people who are hard-liners and there are people who are flaming liberals," said Kennedy, who said he made his "first human connection" to Islam in 1960. "I've been at it a little while."
Asked if he ever gets protesters to the half-dozen talks he gives a year, Kennedy said he has "had occasions" where he's encountered fear mongers.
"They don't know Muslims," said Kennedy. "They know stories about Muslims. They have never met the people, and they don't know how the faith is practiced in day-to- day living. They hear what is said over the television; a lot of it is wrong."
He said that just like any human being on the planet, most Muslims simply want to live good lives and support their children.
"Asked about presidential hopeful Donald Trump's call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants, Kennedy said such rhetoric is "as American as Apple pie."
"In American history, we have done this to the Catholics, to the Irish, to the Italians, to the Jews, to the Chinese," said Kennedy. "It's a part of American politics called native-ism."
Hounsell and fellow library trustee Bill Marvel released the following statement on the upcoming talk:
"The open exchange of ideas, the freedom to speak and believe as one chooses, and the liberty to maintain personal and professional associations are central to American liberty. The right to express oneself freely through speech, art, music, writing, dance, and all other means reveal many of the thoughts we have as individuals and as a free people. Freedom of thought and expression are essential, and afford us the opportunity to reform and grow as individuals and as a community. The paramount right we each enjoy as Americans is freedom of thought, but thought itself is practically meaningless without the freedom of speech.
"The free program 'A Short Course On Islam for Non Muslims,' to be presented at the Conway Public Library April 18th at 6 p.m., is a wonderful opportunity for those interested in learning about the history and beliefs of another important culture. Times being what they are, some may be uneasy or even angry about the program, but Americans are quite capable of hearing different points of view. Censorship itself is un-American, and serves as an ugly reminder that we must, as Jefferson warned us, be eternally vigilant when it comes to liberty. This program is sponsored by New Hampshire Humanities, and will come at no cost to Conway taxpayers."