4th Circuit Wary of Teen Whose Class Tackled Islam

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Dissecting arguments from a teen who says her history lesson was unconstitutionally supportive of Islam, the Fourth Circuit appeared ready Tuesday to give the appeal an “F.”

“Do we have to go to court every time someone teaches about religion,” U.S. Circuit Judge James Wynn complained this morning. “One statement per court hearing? How is that manageable?” 

An Obama appointee known for his zesty approach to oral arguments, Wynn appeared impatient as Kate Oliveri, a lawyer with the Christianity-focused Thomas Moore Law Center, argued that even the subtle promotion of faith could violate the right to freedom from religion. 

“The teacher here was Christian, right?” asked Wynn, as the lawyer nodded calmly. “You’d be all over her if the teacher was Muslim, right?” 

“It would be different, yes,” Oliveri replied enthusiastically, leaving U.S. Circuit Judge Pamela Harris with a disturbed look on her face. 

Harris, like Wynn, is an Obama appointee, but their Reagan-appointed colleague, U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Keenan seemed similarly unimpressed with Oliveri’s argument.

“Do you lose your case if we look at the entire lesson?” Harris asked.

Though Oliveri said that it would not hurt her case to consider the rest of the lesson, she pivoted immediately to the three incidents mentioned in the complaint. 

The case stems from the 2014-15 school year at La Plata High School in Maryland’s Charles County School District. Caleigh Wood, a junior, claimed that her rights were violated during a world-history class where the teacher focused on how Islam influences the Middle East politics.

Wood took offense specifically with two PowerPoint slides that read, “Most Muslim’s faith is stronger than the average Christian,” and “Islam, at heart, is a peaceful religion.” (Grammatical errors in original).

A third assignment that Wood found objectionable required students to write the Islamic shahada, which states, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” 

As opening arguments wound down Tuesday, a dissatisfied look stretched across all three judges’ faces, and Wynn, with his trademark snark, let one more dig fly. 

“You said it was this statement,” he said, pointing to the slide about the strength of Muslims’ faith.

“Couldn’t you read this as saying Islamic faith in Islam is stronger than a Christian’s faith in Islam?” he said.

“Well, you need context,” Oliveri replied. 

“But you said it was this statement; are you looking at the whole course or is it the statement?” Wynn pressed again.

“I don’t think that’s the reasonable interpretation of that statement,” she replied.

Arguing for the school district Tuesday, Andrew Scott with the firm Pessin Katz Law said that the decontextualized lesson materials have no business being debated in court.

“Context is crucial,” he said. “If this court were to rule in appellants favor it would open the floodgates.”

Judge Harris appeared receptive to Scott’s warning, chiming in that she read the slides as an invitation for students to tackle the public conceptions of Islam. 

As for the “strength of faith” slide, she said she could see how the required fasting, daily prayers and other requirements of the faith might show a strength of faith many Christians lack, or at least lead to discussion among students.

Scott agreed.

“This was taught to show the rise of Islam in politics from then to today … and that’s what it does,” he said. “Students parroting the tenets of Islam to learn about them.”

The judges did not say when they will rule on the case.

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