Written by Don Byrd

What are the constitutional limits for a world religions curriculum in public schools? When does teaching *about* a religion become improper indoctrination?

In a Maryland school district, parents of one child objected to a world religions unit on Islam because it required her to learn “the pillars of Islam” and included an assertion that the faith of most Muslims is “stronger than the average Christian.” But in a unanimous ruling issued earlier today, a panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the challenged activities did not amount to an impermissible endorsement of religion when taken in context.

For one, the unit in question was only a small part of the overall curriculum. But also, the court ruled, the activities did not cross the line. Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

The use of both the comparative faith statement and the shahada assignment in Wood’s world history class involved no more than having the class read, discuss, and think about Islam. The comparative faith statement appeared on a slide under the heading “Peaceful Islam v. Radical Fundamental Islam.” The slide itself did not advocate any belief system but instead focused on the development of Islamic fundamentalism as a political force. And the shahada assignment appeared on the student worksheet under the heading “Beliefs and Practices: The Five Pillars.” Thus, the assignment asked the students to identify the tenets of Islam, but did not suggest that a student should adopt those beliefs as her own.

This is not a case in which students were being asked to participate in a daily religious exercise, or a case in which Islamic beliefs were posted on a classroom wall without explanation. Rather, the challenged materials were “integrated into the school curriculum” and were directly relevant to the secular lessons being taught.

In addition, the court warned against judicial focus on individual classroom statements:

[I]f courts were to find an Establishment Clause violation every time that a student or parent thought that a single statement by a teacher either advanced or disapproved of a religion, instruction in our public schools “would be reduced to the lowest common denominator.” Such a focus on isolated statements effectively would transform each student, parent, and by extension, the courts, into de facto “curriculum review committee[s],” monitoring every sentence for a constitutional violation.

[A]cademic freedom would not long survive in an environment in which courts micromanage school curricula and parse singular statements made by teachers.

The appeals court ruling affirmed a district court’s earlier dismissal of the parents’ complaint. You can read the appeals court ruling here. Courthouse News Service coverage is here.