Last week, a New Jersey middle school breathed a sigh of relief after a two-and-a-half year court case that attracted national attention finally came to a close.
A federal district court ruled that lessons about Islam at Chatham Middle School did not amount to religious indoctrination and, therefore, did not violate the Establishment Clause.
The case centered around a required course, World Cultures and Geography, as taught by Megan Keown and Christine Jakowski. One unit in the course covered the Middle East and North Africa, and it included some basic information about Islam, the dominant religion in the region and a key factor in understanding its culture and politics.
To some parents, though — notably Libby Hilsenrath and Nancy Gayer — outlining the tenets of a religion is the same as preaching it. The two women complained about the class content at a 2017 meeting of the Board of Education of the School District of the Chathams. Most of their complaints revolved around a video in which a cartoon child states tenets of his beliefs as a Muslim and describes aspects of daily life within his faith.
Hilsenrath also objected that other religions were not covered within the Middle East and North Africa unit in particular:
In this unit there is no mention of any other religion or teaching of it. For example, Christianity and Judaism are present in the region and both have great historical and cultural impact… If the goal is to educate students about the tenets of religions that we think they don’t know much about, then I think most people would agree that we have to include the tenets of Christianity and Judaism.
Responding to their concerns, superintendent Michael La Susa mildly pointed out that the lesson plan was in accord with the New Jersey Common Core Curriculum and covered a range of faiths, not just Islam, with the intent of “broadening pupils’ understanding” of diverse cultures.
Scarcely two weeks after the board meeting, Hilsenrath and Gayer appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to complain about the school’s “teaching of Islam” and alleged suppression of Christianity. She complained that the course material covered only Islam, stating its tenets as fact while ignoring any other religion. Carson suggested that “interest groups” were to blame for this blatant inequality.
But there was no inequality, it turns out, because Hilsenrath’s characterization of the situation was outright untrue.
While the unit on the Middle East and North Africa only contained lessons on the majority religion of the region, other segments of the course contained introductory lessons on several other religions, presented when they became relevant. Within the year-long course, several other faiths (including the allegedly suppressed Christianity) received similar treatment.
But it’s no accident that it was Islam in particular — not Sikhism, Buddhism, or any of the other faiths studied in the class — that set off the lawsuit, given that the Christian Right has been committed to portraying Muslims as an alien enemy since before the Hilsenrath child was born.
In fact, there’s a fair argument to be made about teaching Islam in particular as a corrective to widespread anti-Muslim propaganda within America. But that’s not what was happening here, because the course gave Islam a comparable amount of attention.
Board president Jill Critchley Weber says it was that inaccuracy that fired up the Religious Right, and the board began to receive a barrage of angry mail:
[People sent] violent, vulgar mail to the district, violent threats against our employees, violent threats against our employees’ families. Death threats against our employees, physical harm to our buildings, and this went on for a while. One threat was so credible that the federal authorities had to get involved.
La Susa added that the local police department posted officers at the middle school and outside his private office for fear of violent responses to the curriculum.
Nearly a year later, the faith-based Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) filed suit against the school board and the teachers on behalf of Libby Hilsenrath, arguing that her son was “forced to endure Islamic propaganda and an explicit call to convert.”
They certainly haven’t done a stellar job defusing accusations of Islamophobia, given the rhetoric they employ when describing the case:
Clearly, seventh graders were given a sugarcoated, false depiction of Islam. They were not informed of the kidnappings, beheadings, slave-trading, massacres, and persecution of non-Muslims, nor of the repression of women — all done in the name of Islam.
Friends, have I got some news for you about Christianity . . .
Fortunately, the court had the information that FOX News was missing and saw through TMLC’s hyperbole.
While U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty initially agreed to hear the case, calling it an “untested” situation that should be explored, he ultimately ended up dismissing the case against the Chatham school board.
In his written decision, he pointed out that the course material never required or invited students to participate in any religious activity. While the video linked in the course notes stated tenets of the Islamic faith, it was very clear that those represented the cartoon speaker’s beliefs alone:
A reasonable observer would see that the curriculum and materials are presented as part of an academic exercise. When schools require students to “read, discuss, and think” about a religion, such lessons do not have the primary effect of advancing that religion…
[The video] is from the perspective of a believer, but a reasonable observer would understand that the video is not presented as representing the views of the teacher or the school; nor is there any indication that it was presented in a manner to suggest that students should accept the video-creator’s views as revealed religious truth.
Above all, McNulty found that the course included material covering a variety of religions in similar fashions, with no “impermissible favoritism” given to one over another — the very fact that Hilsenrath, Gayer, and Tucker Carlson refused to allow to get in the way of a good rage-baiting story.
The school board heralds the case as “a complete vindication” of their pedagogy and their educational staff… and undoubtedly, they hope this will be the end of their school’s place in the conversation.
For their sake, let’s hope the Hilsenrath kid doesn’t have a younger sibling.
(Screenshot via YouTube)