SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Thursday refused to dismiss a lawsuit claiming California treats Hinduism unfavorably compared to other religions in its public education standards and framework.
In refusing to dismiss one of four claims against the state, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer cited a student’s letter detailing how sixth graders were divided into castes and told the unfair system was derived from Hinduism.
“[W]e know that social hierarchies have existed in all societies, so why is Hinduism singled out with such [a] negative portrayal?” the student asked in her letter, submitted as a public comment when the state was drafting new standards last year.
California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials, a group that promotes the accurate portrayal of Hinduism in schools, and three Hindu parents suing on behalf of their children filed their lawsuit in February.
They claim the state Board of Education adopted recommendations from an anti-Hindu group of history teachers called the South Asia Faculty Group when it drafted new education standards and frameworks in July 2016.
Breyer refused to dismiss a claim that the educational standards violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, but he dismissed three other claims alleging violations of due process, free exercise of religion, and equal protection under the law.
“I’m pleased that the Establishment Clause claim has survived because it’s actually kind of the heart of what we’re fighting over,” plaintiffs’ attorney Glenn Katon said in an interview. “The main thing we’re fighting over is the depiction of Hinduism in the California education standards and framework, which we claim is disparaging toward Hindus.”
The plaintiffs claim the state portrays other religions as having divine origins while failing to do the same for Hinduism. They also say the state favors Abrahamic faiths by teaching biblical stories, such as the Exodus, as historical events.
However, Breyer did not accept that California teaches biblical stories as historical facts.
“The curriculum does not teach the parting of the Red Sea as fact,” Breyer wrote. “Rather it acknowledges the ‘movement [of Hebrew peoples] to and from Egypt,’ and notes the ‘significance to Jewish law and belief’ of the Exodus story.”
Breyer also rejected claims that the state Board of Education drafted the new standards through an unfair process. The plaintiffs say the state accepted changes proposed by the “anti-Hindu” South Asian Faculty Group, such as teaching that the caste system was a social and cultural structure “as well as a religious belief.”
The question of whether the caste system is rooted as a religious construct in Hinduism is a matter of debate among scholars.
Breyer found the state did not violate due process by failing to accept every suggestion proposed by parents and advocacy groups.
“The problem here is not process,” Breyer wrote. “The [state Board of Education] invited public comments on the draft framework, but it is not obligated to accept every suggested edit – nor could it, when faced with conflicting input. The public school system could not function if every rejected public comment on the content of curriculum carried potential liability.”
Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction and director of the California Department of Education, serves as lead defendant in the case. The lawsuit also names as defendants members of the state Board of Education and school board members from San Francisco, San Ramon, Cupertino and Milpitas.
In 2009, California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials settled a previous lawsuit against the state over the portrayal of Hinduism in school textbooks. The suit was settled for $175,000, according to the group’s website.
California Department of Education spokesman Robert Oakes did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Thursday afternoon.