WASHINGTON – As a high school student, Caleigh Wood refused to take a history lesson on "The Muslim World" which she said forced her to embrace Islam in conflict with her Christian faith and the Constitution.
This week, a federal appeals court disagreed, saying the school officials in South Maryland had not violated Wood's First Amendment rights, as the program did not support any religion in particular. and did not oblige Wood to profess any conviction. "
"School authorities, not the courts, have the responsibility to decide which speech is appropriate in the classroom," wrote Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, which was attended by judges Pamela Harris and James Wynn. "Academic freedom would no longer survive in an environment in which courts manage school curricula and analyze teachers' singular statements."
Lawyer Andrew Scott, who represents officials from the Charles County School, said on Tuesday that the ruling was sending an important message to school officials across the state, claiming that they had the power to teach religion.
"Religion is an integral part of history. You can not ignore it, "said Scott, who pleaded the case in US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. "The key is to teach it from a secular perspective – not to proselytize."
Wood's lawyer, Richard Thompson, said he would ask the court of appeal in Richmond, Virginia, or the Supreme Court, to reconsider the decision of the three-judge court.
The school's lesson clearly aimed at Islam, denigrated Christianity and constituted "the forced speech of a Christian girl," said Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, a national non-profit law firm Christian. "It is an unequal treatment of Christianity by the school system."
The Maryland affair is the last chapter of an ongoing national debate on how to teach religion in public schools.
The lesson in dispute lasted five days over a year, when Wood was in grade 11 at La Plata High School, about 35 km south of here, in 2014-2015. Wood and his parents opposed two aspects of unity that touched politics, geography, and culture. One was a slide between "peaceful Islam" and "radical radical Islam," which included the following statement: "Most Muslims [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian. "
Wood was also expected to complete a worksheet on the growth of Islam, "beliefs and practices" and the links between Islam, Judaism and Christianity. A section to be completed in white included the statement "There is no other god that Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah", part of a statement of Islamic faith known as shahada.
Wood's father, John, asked his daughter to be given a different assignment and told him to refuse to finish any work associated with Islam that "would violate [her] Christian beliefs, "according to court records.
Wood received a lower grade for the lesson, but that did not affect his final grade, according to the filings.
His parents went to court. The materials, they argued, were devoid of any secular object and had the effect of "promoting and supporting Islam".
Woods, now 20, graduated in 2016 as his case continued to make its way to the courts.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government – in this case the heads of public schools – from advancing or prohibiting a particular religion.
In its decision, the court considered the overall curriculum in school history rather than examining each potentially problematic statement. If judges found violations "whenever a student or parent thought that a single statement from a teacher was either advancing or disapproving of a religion, teaching in our public schools" would be reduced to the lowest common denominator, "writes Keenan in his speech. opinion -page.
The court found that the mission involving shahada was to determine whether students understood the "beliefs and practices" of Muslims. The task was factual and the students "were not required to memorize the shahada, recite it, or even write the complete statement of faith," according to the decision.
"This is precisely the kind of academic exercise that, according to the Supreme Court, did not run counter to the settlement clause," he said.
The court's opinion noted that the school's content specialist had stated that the language in the slide on the strength of the Muslim religion in relation to Christianity was "inappropriate" and that he would have advised the teacher not to include it in the lesson.
The court nevertheless concluded that the slide did not advocate a particular belief system and was relevant to all of the secular lessons taught.
The slide is no longer used in the school curriculum, said a spokesperson, and social studies teachers were trained on "the appropriate resources that meet the standards required by Maryland for the course".
"We do not teach religion. What we teach is a story of the world, "said Kimberly Hill, superintendent of Charles County Schools, after the decision. "This is a unit. This is not a kind of indoctrination for anyone. "
Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum in Washington, said the merging of Islam with terrorism and the rise of Islamophobia have created a "special fear and suspicion as to how whose Islam is treated in public schools ".
An assignment or presentation may be poorly worded, but it is not unconstitutional unless it is clearly defined, said Haynes, who spearheaded efforts to create guidelines for teaching religion in public schools .
The courts, he said, are reluctant to "judge every claim" and leave it to the educators rather than "guessing every little thing or not embedding the courts in the program".