February 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A New Jersey public school did not violate separation of church and state by teaching about Islam in a course in world culture and geography, a federal court has ruled.

Libby Hilsenrath, a parent in the School District of the Chathams, sued in early 2018 over the seventh-grade lessons, which she claimed favored Islam at the expense of other faiths. School officials countered that the lesson plans treated religion objectively and included discussion of faiths such as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism.

U.S. District Court Judge Kevin McNulty ruled in November that the school’s approach was legal.

“Here, the World Cultures course includes similar units on, for example, Hinduism and Buddhism, in which students watch videos on those religions to understand their tenets and practices,” McNulty wrote. “A reasonable observer would not perceive an endorsement of Islam when the course also presented other religions in a similar manner. Further, Islam is introduced as part of a unit on the Middle East and North Africa in a course covering geography and world cultures, so it is presented in conjunction with nonreligious material about a region of the world. … This case falls into the category of those in which schools permissibly asked students to ‘read, discuss, and think’ about a religion.”

Jill Critchley Weber, president of the Chathams school board, called the rulinga complete vindication of the board, the district administration and its teachers.”

Weber told TAPinto, a local news site, that after Hilsenrath and other parents appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on the Fox News Channel and spread inaccurate information about the course, the school system was inundated with threats. The district’s superinten­dent,  ­Mich­ael LaSusa, received police protection.

“We had to post police outside the middle school, and I forget how many weeks we had a police officer stationed outside Dr. LaSusa’s office,” Weber said. “Some of the threats were benign and nonsensical, but many of them were violent and vulgar.” (Hilsenrath v. School District of the Chathams)