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County Attorney Questions Training

CEDAR RAPIDS, IA (CBS2/FOX28) A training session being put on by the Linn County Diversity Committee for employees is drawing criticism from the County Attorney. 

County Attorney, Jerry Vander Sanden, said a training session at a Muslim mosque is overstepping the bounds between church and government.

The optional session allows employees two opportunities to visit the Mother Mosque of America for an hour long session teaching employees about Muslims in Iowa. A flyer sent to employees states that the session will include an introduction to Islam that will include the month of Ramadan and Muslim History in Iowa. When employees attend, they will be paid.

This is an information-only session for interested employees who want to learn more about our diverse community and use that knowledge to better serve our customers, Lisa Powell the HR Director for Linn County said.

At the Mother Mosque on Wednesday, one local Cedar Rapidian arrived with a friend to show him the Mosque. His friend had just stepped off the plane from Saudi Arabia.

I just got him from the airport. I was supposed to take him home to have some rest, Awad Elhussien said.

However, taking his friend to the Mother Mosque of America was too important to Elhussien to wait.

I told him, the first mosque being built in this country was in Cedar Rapids, Elhussien said about the Mother Mosque.

El Hussien explained the Mother Mosque is just an example of how Americans and Iowans have embraced diversity.

That's the idea behind the session being offered at the mosque for Linn County employees.

The goal really is to make them aware of some of the things as a community that makes us more distinct and unique, Ben Rogers with the Linn County Board of Supervisors said. 

Yet, Vandersanden said the session is raising a red flag. Not only is he worried about the appropriate separation between church and government, but he's also concerned about using tax payers dollars to teach about a religious group.

This venture could be seen as an effort by a government entity to promote religion, and I see that as a potential constitutional issue, Vandersanden said.

I was raised Jewish; I would be the first one, if I thought on any level that we were promoting a singular religion. We're providing an opportunity for our employees to learn about a culture and a group of people, not a religion, Rogers said.

Hassan Selim the Amam of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids said he understands the situation from both sides

I understand it that you know, you don't want the government employee to be affected or biased by a certain religion or ideas because they're serving a diverse community, Selim said.
Rogers said its an important opportunity for employees to grow and develop knowledge of diversity in the community. He noted that Linn County government employees are about 95 percent Caucasian.

The expectation would not be people are leaving Muslims, converting to Islam, but that they leave knowing something about their fellow citizens who work with them, live with them, Selim said about the session that he isnt teaching. However, he knows Amam Taha Tawil and Sara Tawil who will teach the sessions at the Mother Mosque.

Teaching about diversity is an ideal Vandersanden embraces if the training doesnt involve religion.

I certainly support other programs put on by the diversity committee, those that touch on race, nationality, Vandersanden said.

Back at the Mother Mosque, Elhussien said he sees only opportunity with the training.

For me as a Muslim, to find one of its employees coming to our Mother Mosque to know about Islam, for sure, it's advantages for us and for them, Elhussien said.

County Supervisor Rogers said despite County Attorney Vandersanden's concerns, the diversity committee plans on moving forward with the planned sessions on June 3rd and 4th.
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