RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A Fourth Circuit panel sided Monday with a Maryland school district after a Christian student and her family opposed a lesson plan that taught about the Islamic faith.
Caleigh Wood was an 8th grade student in Charles County Public School system when her world history teacher began a unit that involved lessons on Islam. When her father John Wood found out, he instructed his daughter to not complete the assignments because doing so would violate her “Christian beliefs.”
The Woods’ complaint pointed to specific lines in the lesson plan such as a projected slide that contained the statement “Most Muslim’s [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian,” and other related worksheets which they said they found offensive.
The family filed suit saying such activities violated their daughter’s constitutional rights but failed to sway a lower court judge. And the Fourth Circuit court in Richmond was similarly unimpressed with their claim according to an opinion released Monday.
“School authorities, not the courts, are charged with the responsibility of deciding what speech is appropriate in the classroom,” wrote Circuit Judge Barbara Keenan, an Obama appointee. She stressed it wasn’t ideally the judiciary’s role to make decisions on what can and cannot be taught in schools.
“Although schools are not ‘immune from the sweep of the First Amendment,’ academic freedom is itself a concern of that amendment,” Keenan wrote in the 18-page opinion.
Still, Keenan examined the lesson plan and noted it did not involve extensive memorization of Islamic prayers, nor did the statement about comparing faiths exist without context – an issue the three judge panel harped on during oral arguments late last year. Instead, the judge wrote, the materials were based on historical fact about one of the largest faiths in the modern world.
“The worksheet included a variety of factual information related to Islam and merely asked the students to demonstrate their understanding of the material by completing the partial sentences,” she wrote. “This is precisely the sort of academic exercise that the Supreme Court has indicated would not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.”
Another contentious part of the lesson plan involved filling in words on an Islamic prayer. Woods argued such an exercise amounted to forcing her to adhere to Islam in violation of her freedom of speech, however Keenan noted students’ speech rights are not as absolute as adults.
“[Freedom of speech] has limited application in a classroom setting in which a student is asked to study and discuss materials with which she disagrees,” she wrote.
Keenan was joined by Circuit Judges James Wynn and Pamela Harris, both Obama appointees.