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Muslims on HHS debate team going to championships at Liberty Univ. despite Falwell remarks

Published: Feb. 18, 2016 at 6:10 PM EST
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Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., sparked outrage in December after what some called anti-Muslim rhetoric in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings.

Falwell said during the school's weekly convocation, "If more good people had concealed (handgun) carry permits then we can end those Muslims before they walk in and kill us." President Falwell did end up clarifying his statement: saying by

those Muslims

he was directly referring to the jihadist terrorists behind the attacks in Paris and California.

Now, some high school debate students are boycotting the state debate championship, traditionally held at Liberty University. Falwell's comments sparked concerns about safety for Muslim students at Harrisonburg High School, many of whom will debate at Liberty in April.

In response to Falwell's comments, several state-wide debate champions signed an open letter to the Virginia High School League (VHSL), the organization which hosts the championship debate. Protesters asked the group to change the location of the championship.

In a statement, the VHSL said it would evaluate the safety of students participating at an event at Liberty. They also said they respect the free speech rights of both Falwell and the students boycotting.

Harrisonburg High School's debate team has several Muslim members. When news of the comments and petition came out, their coach spoke with his team on the topic. Coach Aaron Cosner, himself, is a Liberty graduate. "Like a lot of Liberty alumni, I was embarrassed by the comments," Cosner said. "My first concern was: how are they going to feel competing at the state tournament?"

That's why Cosner asked his team if they should cancel.

"My students are approaching this in exactly the way I would want them to," said Cosner. "They are disappointed; they are repulsed by the comments but at the same time they are saying, 'We're debaters, we're not afraid of controversy and we will go and compete if the tournament is still held there.'"

Ali Al-Shebani is a co-captain of the debate team and a Muslim. He also weighed in on the impact of this decision. "I need to be able to know that I am safe at all times," said Al-Shebani. "I want to know that if I go into this debate tournament, I shouldn't have to worry about walking on the side of the street and being harmed by something."

The team united, knowing they would debate despite the venue. Coach Cosner said, "Their response was 'we're debaters, we're not afraid of walking into a controversial situation,' that made me feel pride."

Al-Shebani said Falwell's comments only fuel his passion to win the April tournament.

He has one piece of advice for his competitors: "Get ready, yeah we're definitely ready for this; we've been practicing every single day, so as long as they are ready then this should be fun."

The topic for this year's debate is: The United States ought to promote democracy in the Middle East."