Teaching About Islam in Maryland School Upheld by Federal Court
A history lesson on “The Muslim World” taught in La Plata High School in Charles County, Maryland during the 2014-15 school year was recently contested by a Christian family in federal court.
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
A history lesson on “The Muslim World” taught in the high schools of Charles County, Maryland during the 2014-15 school year was recently contested by a Christian family in federal court. The case was brought by a student who believed the lesson compelled her to embrace Islam, which conflicted with her Christian faith and the Constitution. The case was complicated by a personally held ideological point of view of Christianity and by the untoward behavior of the student and her family. While the federal court ruled in favor of the school district, this does not mean that the present Supreme Court, given its earlier ruling on the Muslim immigrant ban, will concur.
First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
Christian Student Challenged a School History Lesson on Islam and Lost in Court
High school junior, Caleigh Wood, complained that a weeklong curriculum unit on Islam had violated her First Amendment rights. She then refused to complete the unit, complaining that its purpose was to convert her to Islam. The lesson, she claimed, endorsed Islam and denigrated her Christian faith. Specifically, Ms. Wood insisted that it did so by having her learn about the ‘Five Pillars of Islam,’ namely, the major tenets of the faith, and the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. The unit on Islam was part of a yearlong course that also included the Renaissance and Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and World Wars I and II.
The Wood family had argued that the unit on Islam was an endorsement of the Islamic faith that violated the first amendment provision barring the government’s establishment of religion. Filling in the blanks of a test on the Five Pillars was seen as violating Ms. Wood’s freedom of speech. The family was represented by the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Michigan, which has supported a number of cases objecting to public school lessons on the Islamic faith and history.
One particular point the Wood case objected to was a powerpoint slide presentation that compared “peaceful Islam” to “radical fundamental Islam.” One of the slides made a questionable statement that ‘Most Muslim’s (sic) faith is stronger than the average Christian.” That is clearly an unprovable statement. What it might have stated is that Muslims feel every bit as strong in their belief in God as do their Christian brethren. The school spokesperson stated this was an inadvisable statement, but that an isolated statement itself did not undermine the larger case, much less turn the court into a “de facto curriculum committee.”
Wood Family and Fox News complicate the Case
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit of Richmond, Virginia, ruled in favor of the Charles County School system. In addition to the purely legalistic aspects of this case, the Wood family did not distinguish itself by its own comportment. Wood exchanged harsh, including foul, language with the vice-principal, resulting in her being banned from the school premises. Her father objected to taxpayers having to pay for teaching about Islam without equal time for other religions. He was also banned from school grounds. School officials insisted on the ban to ensure the security of students and staff.
Federal Court of Appeals
Fox news entered the fray by accepting literally the Wood family side of the story. Thus, it accused the high school of indoctrinating students in Islam by insisting that students “profess” Muslim statements of faith. Adding to Fox’ view, the Thomas More Law Center used such phrases in its law case as “indoctrination and propaganda” employed by teachers.
Continuing Issues about how to Teach about Religion in Schools
The fourth circuit court reviewed the case on the broad context of Charles County School’s world history curriculum, versus individual student or parent statements of objection to a particular statement. Charles County Schools maintained that it is teaching world history, not the indoctrination of its students.
An example of another state which teaches about Islam is California. Its social studies curriculum for 7th graders covers ancient Muslim culture, including the impact of Islam on world history. It is one of 11 units in its social studies program and pointedly does not involve indoctrination. The point of teaching this unit is to describe Islam’s belief system in the context of world history, not to teach the religion itself. More specifically, in its own words, the California social studies standard is the following:
Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the civilizations of Islam in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, this goal is to be achieved by having students: Trace the origins of Islam and the life and teachings of Muhammad, including Islamic teaching on the connection with Judaism and Christianity.
This unit is included in a textbook, Across the Centuries, a social studies text that covers the world’s cultures over two-thousand years. It covers many cultures, including Japanese, Chinese, European, African, South American, and Islam. It intends to introduce 7th graders to the history of other lands and cultures and the trend of history from its first recorded moments to the present.
What’s the Point?
Two points view prevail on the question of how much students should know about other societies, cultures, and religions. One is that the U.S. is out of the loop of the rest of the world, the other that the rest of the world can ‘get lost.’ The first group wants its students to learn about these other cultures and world views different from the American one. This way, students will be prepared to deal with the rest of the world. The second wants to keep students from learning about the larger world and to restrict learning to the American point-of-view, namely that of a white, Christian perspective. This would supposedly keep vulnerable students from being indoctrinated by other ways of thinking about and looking at the world.
Members of the 2019 Supreme Court
So far, as shown in the Charles County, Maryland case, federal judges have kept an open mind about applying the First Amendment to public school teaching. Since that Amendment covers both freedom of religion and freedom of expression, the Maryland case got caught up in both of these critical freedoms. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the teaching of Islam did not promote one religion over another nor did it restrict an individual’s religious practices. Furthermore, teaching about other religions accorded with the freedom of expression right. If this type of case ends up in the Supreme Court, it is perhaps difficult to believe that that Court would overturn the decision. But given the radical right leaning of the majority of judges on the Court, don’t hold your breath.
References: Ann Marimow, Washington Post, 2/13/2019; Baltimore Sun Media Group, 2019; Meira Scirsky, CLARION, 11/25/2014; Thomas More Law Center, “Federal Lawsuit On Behalf of Marine Dad Banned from School Property After He Objected to Islamic Indoctrination of Daughter,” 2019; Todd Starnes, Fox News, 1/26/2016; Ellen Sorokin, “Islam Course at Middle Schools in California Angers Parents,” OC Weekly, 10/26/2001
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.