Public Schools

Factual information about Islam is OK in N.J. public school, court rules

  Rob Boston

Objective instruction about Islam may continue in a New Jersey public school district after a federal judge’s ruling.

In 2017, two parents, Nancy Gayer and Libby Hilsenrath, complained about the inclusion of Islam in the Chatham district’s seventh-grade World Cultures and Geography course. The following year, Hilsenrath, backed by the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian Nationalist legal group, sued.

U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty ruled against Hilsenrath in 2020, determining the classes had a legitimate educational purpose and were not coercive. But an appeals court ordered McNulty to reexamine his ruling in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which the justices used a “deceitful narrative” to determine a public school football coach could say a private prayer on the field after games. AU, which represented the school district, denounced the decision because it ignored the coach’s history of praying with students.

Objective instruction about religion is OK

McNulty reviewed the Kennedy decision – and once again ruled that the classes about Islam don’t violate the law. (Hat tip to “Friendly Atheist” blogger Hemant Mehta for his reporting on this case.)

“After reviewing the parties’ submissions, I find that the record contains no evidence of significant coercion,” McNulty wrote in his ruling to Hilsenrath v. School District of the Chathams.

Tellingly, McNulty noted that Hilsenrath’s own son, identified as C.H. in court documents, “expressly testified that he never felt coerced. In fact, C.H. (correctly, in the District’s view) perceived the purpose and effect of the lessons as being to educate students about world religions and the importance of avoiding group generalizations. … Nor did any other student testify that he or she experienced the course materials as coercive. In short, direct, subjective evidence of coercion is lacking.”

Another manufactured controversy

This case has all the hallmarks of a manufactured controversy by far-right groups eager to smear public education. Hilsenrath and Gayer assailed the school district, appearing on Tucker Carlson’s program on the Fox News Channel. School officials say they spread misinformation about the lessons, which sparked a spate of threats against the school. For a time, the school’s superintendent had to receive police protection due to the threats.

The irony here is rich. Christian Nationalists complain incessantly about the lack of religion in public schools, but what they really want is a certain type of religion in public schools – theirs. That can’t happen because public schools have an obligation to teach factual information, not preach religious indoctrination.

Hilsenrath and Gayer were trying to shut down the school district’s ability to convey the type of information young people need to understand the world they live in. They deserved to lose.

P.S. To learn more about what’s legal and what’s not when it comes to religion in public schools, check out AU’s “Know Your Rights” publications.

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