Hilsenrath v. School District of the Chathams

Last modified 2024.03.19

  • Status Ongoing
  • Type Amicus
  • Court U.S. Court of Appeals
  • Issues Public Schools, The Separation of Church and State

Case Documents

A middle-school student’s parent brought a First Amendment Establishment Clause challenge to a public-school social studies curriculum that she alleged promoted Islam. In its ruling in favor of the school, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey adopted a very narrow interpretation of the Establishment Clause, suggesting—among other errors—that it only protects students from religious coercion if the coercion involves force of law and threat of penalty.

On March 19, 2024, after the plaintiff appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Americans United filed an amicus brief in support of neither side to discourage the Third Circuit from adopting the district court’s limited view of the Establishment Clause’s protections. We explained that the Clause prohibits not just direct coercion by public schools, but also subtle coercive pressure and any form of proselytization or expression of preference for a religion. Thus, while schools can properly teach students about the histories and influences of various religions, as well as the differences between religions, any public-school lesson regarding religion that coerces, proselytizes, or expresses a religious preference violates the Establishment Clause.

Our brief takes no position on whether the curriculum at issue in the case violates these principles. Its purpose is to guide the Court in writing a decision that would ensure the continued vitality of the separation of church and state in public schools.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now