A seventh-grade world history teacher in Covina outraged Christian groups when they learned that he offered extra credit to students who chose to fast in the tradition of Ramadan to learn about Islam.
Len Cesene at Royal Oak Intermediate School told his students earlier this month that they could raise their grades if they fasted for one to three days during the daytime and wrote a half-page summary of their experiences to explore the theme of sacrifice.
A week later, some students' parents complained to evangelical radio show host Bob Morey of KPLS-AM (830), who helped organize a rally Monday afternoon that drew several hundred people.
"What would Muslim parents feel if their students came home with a letter from their public school teacher [saying] that next Thursday they're bringing in a priest to baptize all the Muslim children," said Morey, author of 45 books on faith and Islam, including "Islamic Invasion: Confronting the World's Fastest-Growing Religion."
Officials with the Charter Oak Unified School District said the extra credit assignment has been offered for 10 years without a complaint. Students can participate only with parental approval, and an alternative assignment was offered to students who decided not to fast.
"We think the assignment was clear, was within the state educational standards and supports what was in the textbook," said district Supt. John Roach.
Cesene "didn't say to do it while thinking about Allah, Jesus or Buddha," Roach added.
Fasting is one of the five pillars that serve as the framework of Islam. It is practiced during the holy month of Ramadan, which is when the Koran is believed to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by God through the Angel Gabriel.
Aside from fasting from dawn to dusk, Muslims abstain from other pleasures such as sex and tobacco during Ramadan, which ended this week. Fasting is a time of spiritual empowerment, self-reflection and acts as a reminder of the poor who go hungry.
Morey said the assignment, which was due Wednesday, violated the separation of church and state. He said he has been contacted by lawyers who will work pro bono to prevent Cesene from offering it again.
Roach said it is up to the teacher to decide whether to offer the assignment next year. He said Cesene teaches no more than 150 students. He did not know how many children fasted.
Cesene, who has worked in the district for 37 years and is not Muslim, declined to comment.
Sabiha Khan, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said of the protest: "It goes to show how irrational some peoples' fears are and how deep ignorance of Islam is."
Khan said she doesn't believe that Morey and his supporters represent the general attitude of Americans toward Islam. "He's part of the new 'bash Islam' industry," she said.
Morey, who also runs a Christian ministry named Faith Defenders, said immigration should be halted until stronger safeguards to prevent terrorism are introduced.
He also says the more than 6 million Muslims who live in the United States should be registered.
Students outside the school Wednesday seemed unfazed by the controversy.
"I don't think the assignment is a problem because it's optional," said Crystal Venegas, 12, one of Cesene's students. "I didn't want to do it. My mom didn't like it. They're supposed to teach culture, not religion."
Venegas said Cesene was a popular teacher. "He's cool," she said. "He's not afraid to act like himself."
Eighth-grader Nicole DeWitt said: "I think it was stupid that they were protesting. They're just trying to make kids understand other religions. They teach us about everybody."