Written by Don Byrd

A federal judge in Maryland has dismissed claims that a public high school’s principal and vice principal violated a student’s First Amendment rights by requiring her to study Islam during a course on World Religions.  In Wood v. Arnold, the court ruled that material on Islam was “presented as part of an academic exercise and not a religious one.”

That is, of course, an essential difference! The separation of church and state does not forbid learning *about* religion in the public school curriculum. It forbids schools from indoctrinating, proselytizing, or requiring students to engage in a religious exercise. Teaching students basic religious literacy about the major faiths of the world can help improve interfaith dialogue and understanding when done properly, mindful of that key pedagogical distinction. In this case, the court found that assignments – which included completion of a worksheet with missing words within statements that comprise the “Five Pillars of Islam” – did not cross over into improper religious promotion.

The plaintiffs emphasized a single, inappropriate statement made by the teacher, who told his class that the faith of most Muslims is “stronger than the average Christian.” The statement concerned the judge but he ruled that it did not constitute an Establishment Clause violation. 

[E]ven if the comparative faith statement was inartful or, to some, offensive, even in isolation, it is not entirely motivated by a purpose to advance religion. First. the statement does not serve as a direct attack on any particular religion or belief. The statement merely opines on the degree to which Muslims adhere to their own faith as compared to Christians. Second, the comparative faith statement was delivered by Mr. Bryden, who is a Christian. As Plaintiffs acknowledged in the hearing. the fact that the statement was made by a Christian would seem to negate the possibility that the statement was made for the purpose of advancing the Islamic faith.

Taken as a whole, the judge added, “[t]he record provides no suggestion that anyone from the school board down through the individual teacher held any bias for or against any religion, or that Defendants’ explanation of the curriculum served as cover for a religiously-motivated purpose.”

You can read the opinion here.