"There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."
Responses to that message, a short Muslim creed known as the Shahada or "Testimony," have shuttered an entire school district in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley region this Friday.
It all started in a Riverheads High School geography class last Friday. Teacher Cheryl LaPorte was educating her students about the development of calligraphy. She had them practice by copying out the Shahada from Arabic. When parents found out about it, outrage followed.
And no wonder. As the Staunton, Va.,-based News Leader pointed out, "Recitation of the shahada is a fundamental step in conversion to Islam."
Officials from the Augusta County School District maintained that this was all one big misunderstanding to the 100 or so parents and others who showed up Tuesday night at a forum to address their concerns.
School district officials admitted that LaPorte had the students copy out the Shahada, but they argued there was no attempt at indoctrination or proselytization. They maintained LaPorte hadn't told the students what they were copying out or translated it for them.
That may be, but parents insisted they still had good reason to balk. LaPorte's calligraphy assignment, which several suspicious students refused to take part in, was part of a world religions unit. The geography teacher had showed the kids a copy of the Koran and invited them to try on the Muslim headscarf called the hijab. And then she asked them to copy out a Muslim creed whose recitation is vital to religious conversion.
School officials said nothing was untoward about LaPorte's class. Many parents didn't buy it and the media coverage provoked more responses, both locally and nationally. Spooked by these reactions, Augusta County canceled class for Friday not just for Riverheads but for the whole school district.
Cancellation is likely to provoke even more criticism, as parents in the district of about 10,000 students must scramble to make sure their kids have supervision during the workday.
Augusta County School District officials released a statement Thursday admitting that while there are no specific threats, the "tone and content" of the calls and emails they are receiving are worrying. Kids and teachers are thus being asked to stay home Friday "out of an abundance of caution" and "based on the recommendations of law enforcement" in the person of Augusta County Sheriff Randy Fisher.
The cancellation notice also offered this concession to critics: "Although students will continue to learn about world religions ... a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future."