The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to consider whether La Plata High School violated a Christian student’s constitutional First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech by teaching about Islam as part of a required world history class during the 2014-2015 school year.
The justices let stand without comment a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a comparative religion lecture, which included a PowerPoint presentation stating that most Muslims are of stronger faith than the average Christian, did not evince governmental preference for, or “establishment” of, a religion.
The student, through counsel, also sought reversal of the 4th Circuit’s 3-0 holding in February that the public school did not compel speech by having 11th-grade students complete a fill-in-the-blanks exercise in which they were to delineate “Allah” as the Muslim god and Muhammad as his “messenger.”
The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the appeal is just that and not a ruling on the merits of the case. The case was docketed at the high court as Caleigh Wood v. Evelyn Arnold et al., No. 18-1438.
“This (Supreme) Court has held that the pinnacle characteristics of the Establishment Clause violation are the absence of neutrality and coerced engagement in religious exercise,” attorney Richard Thompson, of the Thomas More Law Center, wrote in the student’s unsuccessful request for Supreme Court review.
“This is not to say that government institutions must be void of religion entirely, but institutions, such as the public schools, must not disparage a student’s faith or require students to engage in prayer or religious exercises contrary to a student’s deeply held religious convictions,” Thompson added. “On the subject of religion, the public schools are supposed to be neutral, and, while protecting all, it prefers none, and it disparages none.”
The Ann Arbor, Michigan-based law center states on its website that it defends “the religious freedom of Christians.”
In their successful request that the justices not to hear the appeal, attorneys for Charles County Public Schools stated that the 4th Circuit was correct in holding that the lecture and assignment were secular in nature, nonproselytizing and in keeping with the educational goal of teaching students about different beliefs. The educational process often demands that students address issues that make them uncomfortable, stated the attorneys with Pessin Katz Law P.A. in Towson.
“Decades ago this (Supreme) Court made clear that public school authorities, not the courts, are charged with the responsibility of deciding what speech is appropriate in the classroom and that, for purposes of First Amendment analysis, context is crucial,” wrote Edmund J. O’Meally, the school system’s counsel of record before the justices.
“This court has also long held that the First Amendment rights of students in the public schools are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings, and must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,” added O’Meally, joined by Pessin Katz attorneys Lisa Y. Settles and Andrew G. Scott. “In short, this court should deny (the review petition) because the 4th Circuit’s opinion was decided in a manner consistent with this court’s well-settled precedent regarding the limits on students’ First Amendment rights in the nation’s public schools.”
The 4th Circuit, in upholding a district court judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit by the Christian student’s family, said both the lecture and exercise advanced not religion but the secular activity of classroom instruction on a topic of historical significance.
“School authorities, not the courts, are charged with the responsibility of deciding what speech is appropriate in the classroom,” Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote for the 4th Circuit. “This is not a case in which students were asked to participate in a daily religious exercise, or a case in which Islamic beliefs were posted on a classroom wall without explanation,” said Keenan, who was joined by Judges James A. Wynn Jr. and Pamela A. Harris. “Rather, the challenged materials were integrated into the school curriculum and were directly relevant to the secular lessons being taught. These types of educational materials, which express the views of a particular religion, do not amount to an endorsement of religion.”
Keenan also said the fill-in-the-blanks assignment did not require the students “to accept or profess the tenets of Islam … nor were they required to engage in any devotional practice related to Islam.” Rather, she said, the students were asked to insert two words “as an academic exercise to demonstrate … understanding of the world-history curriculum.”
U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel, who sits in the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, had granted summary judgment for the school system in March 2018, prompting the family to appeal to the 4th Circuit.
The appellate court rendered its published decision in Caleigh Wood et al. v. Charles County Public Schools et al., No. 18-1430.