December 2023 Church & State Magazine - December 2023

Federal court upholds lessons about Islam in N.J. school district

 

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

Rear view of teenage girls and boys learning in classroom

Objectivity is OK: Court upholds classes about Islam (Getty Images)

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

U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty ruled against Hilsenrath in 2020, determining that 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 determined that a public school football coach in Washington state could say a private prayer on the field after games. (AU, which represented the Bremerton School District, denounced the decision because it ignored the coach’s history of praying with students.)

McNulty reviewed the Kennedy decision — and once again ruled that the classes about Islam don’t violate the law. 

“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.”

On its “Wall of Separation” blog, Americans United noted that the case had 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 the two spread misinformation about the lessons, which sparked a spate of threats against the school. For a time, the school district superintendent had to receive police protection due to the threats.

AU pointed out that factual, objective instruction about religion has always been legal in public schools. 

For more information about the role of religion in public education, visit au.org/knowyourrights/.

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