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Judge rules (again) that teaching Islam in school doesn't violate the Constitution
It's not religious indoctrination to teach kids about other faiths
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Teaching students about Islam in a public school does not amount to a constitutional violation. That seemingly obvious statement was just reaffirmed in a New Jersey district court this week after a years-long legal battle started by a conservative parent.
The case involved a required “World Cultures and Geography” course at Chatham Middle School in New Jersey. One unit covered the Middle East and North Africa, and it included a section introducing kids to the basic beliefs of Islam, which makes sense since it’s the dominant religion in the region and underlies so much of the area’s culture and politics.
In 2017, during a school board meeting, parent Nancy Gayer complained that her son wasn’t allowed to share Jesus with his classmates during a school presentation… and the district was complicit in hypocrisy by saying no to him but allowing the basics of Islam to be taught to students. (There’s a clear difference between what the kid was doing and what the teachers were doing, but that seemed lost on Gayer.)
Another parent, Libby Hilsenrath, raised similar complaints. She said a video shown to kids about the Five Pillars of Islam also amounted to religious indoctrination. (You can see for yourself that’s not the case.)
"It even goes so far as even making a statement "There is no God except Allah," Hilsenrath said. "This video also states that Allah is the maker of everything, the one true God, etc. The main character is the cartoon video is looking for converts."
In fact, in the video, a Muslim character just says that Muslims believe “there is no God except Allah,” which is… accurate. That’s not proselytizing. That’s just stating a key Islamic belief. The main character is not looking for converts; he’s educating his friend who doesn’t know anything about his religion.
Hilsenrath also complained about how the unit in question didn’t cover Christianity and Judaism even though both religions are prevalent in the region… which is true, but students learn about those religions elsewhere in the curriculum. Introducing seventh graders to the basics of Islam in that particular section just made sense.
At the time, superintendent Michael La Susa noted that the lessons were aligned with the New Jersey Common Core Curriculum and covered many religions, not just one. It didn’t stop the mothers from whining, though, and they soon appeared on Tucker Carlson’s FOX News Channel show to make their case. Because of course they did.
That appearance led to death threats against the school board members:
"Ms. (Libby) Hilsenrath went on national television on Feb. 20th and made some patently false statements about the district," [Board president Jill Critchley] Weber said. "Specifically, that our curriculum crossed the line because it teaches one religion and not all others. Another quote, 'no other religion is taught'.
"It was that last statement that (caused) dozens and dozens of hate mail. violent, vulgar mail to the district, violent threats against our employees, violent threats against our employees' families. Death threats against our employees, physical harm to our buildings and this went on for a while. One threat was so credible that the federal authorities had to get involved."
At the time, Chatham Superintendent Michael LaSusa received extra police protection because of the threats.
In 2018, the right-wing Thomas More Law Center filed a lawsuit against the school district on behalf of Hilsenrath and her son. They argued that the course went beyond what I’ve already mentioned with more direct forms of proselytizing, and that kids weren’t taught the true nature of Islam:
Clearly, seventh graders were given a sugarcoated, false depiction of Islam. They were not informed of the kidnappings, beheadings, slave-trading, massacres, and persecution of non-Muslims, nor of the repression of women — all done in the name of Islam.
Besides the fact that some extremists’ interpretations of Islam shouldn’t be included in a basic introduction to the faith, I assure you there’s no shortage of similar games we could play about the harm inflicted by Christians throughout history right up through the present day.
In any case, U.S. District Court Judge Kevin McNulty wrote in 2020 that the additional content (like a video created by a Muslim organization) was not required for homework, students weren’t tested on it, and there was no evidence that Hilsenrath’s son clicked those links or understood the meaning of what he might have seen. More importantly, it was obvious to any reasonable person that the school wasn’t forcing students to adopt those views; they were just offering them up as examples of what Muslims believe.
What about a worksheet that students had to complete, filling in blanks about basic Islamic beliefs (e.g. “There is no god but ____ and ____ is his messenger”)? Again, that’s a question about whether you understand basic Muslim theology, not a demand that anyone agree with it.
Ultimately, Judge McNulty dismissed the case saying the school wasn’t trying to indoctrinate kids into Islam, relying on what’s known as the Lemon Test to make his argument. He said the curriculum had a secular purpose, the district wasn’t trying to advance or inhibit religion, an there was no excessive entanglement between church and state. The district called it a “complete vindication of the board, the district administration and its teachers.”
But the dismissal didn’t end the case. As I just pointed out the other day, the current right-wing court has effectively said that the Lemon Test is no longer in effect and cannot be used in determining church/state separation violations. That doesn’t mean the principle isn’t in effect; it just removes one useful tool from a judge’s toolbox. The Establishment Clause is still in the Constitution.
So Hilsenrath and her lawyers appealed the decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the ruling and told the judge to reconsider the case in light of what the Supreme Court determined in Kennedy vs. Bremerton (when the Lemon Test officially died), and Judge McNulty has now done that.
Guess what? He still says the district didn’t do anything wrong.
On Monday, McNulty explained how he was no longer looking to the Lemon Test as the basis for his ruling, but judging whether the district violating the Establishment Clause on grounds of coercion and tradition. In both cases, he wrote, Hilsenrath still failed.
After reviewing the parties’ submissions, I find that the record contains no evidence of significant coercion.
To begin with, [Hilsenrath’s child] C.H. expressly testified that he never felt coerced. In fact, C.H. (correctly, in the District’s view) perceived the purpose and effect of the lessons as being to educate students about world religions and the importance of avoiding group generalizations… Nor did any other student testify that he or she experienced the course materials as coercive. In short, direct, subjective evidence of coercion is lacking.
In sum, the curriculum and materials here were not coercive and do not otherwise bear or resemble the “hallmarks of religious establishments the framers sought to prohibit when they adopted the First Amendment.” Accordingly, the Board did not violate the Establishment Clause.
No kidding. The teachers knew that. The district knew that. The only people who refused to accept reality were Hilsenrath and her agenda-driven lawyers, who act like any exposure to non-Christian religions amounts to indoctrination.
The Thomas More Law Center did not respond to my request for comment on the dismissal of their case. It’s not clear whether they’ll appeal the decision again or whether they’ll even have any grounds to do so. Hilsenrath’s child is now preparing to graduate high school. It’s hard to imagine he’s been scarred in any way by having been exposed to basic Islamic beliefs for a couple of days back when he was in middle school.
(via Religion Clause)