SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California on Thursday defeated a lawsuit claiming it treats Hinduism unfavorably compared to Western religions in its educational standards and curriculum.
“A reasonable observer would not view the standards and framework as primarily denigrating Hinduism,” U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer wrote in his 33-page ruling.
Glenn Katon, an Oakland-based attorney representing the plaintiffs, said his clients plan to appeal the ruling, adding he believes it’s high time that courts revisit a 48-year-old legal precedent that makes it harder for plaintiffs to prevail in Establishment Clause cases.
Under a three-pronged test created in the 1971 Supreme Court ruling Lemon v. Kurtzman, a government policy or law must have a secular purpose, a primary effect that does not promote or inhibit religion, and it must not encourage “excessive entanglement with religion.”
It’s the “primary effect” prong that Katon believes requires reconsideration, given the difficulty of proving that hundreds of pages of educational guidelines have a principal effect of endorsing or disparaging a religion.
“You can say something in a several-hundred-page document such as ‘Christ is the supreme lord,'” Katon said by phone. “If a teacher or student reads that, are they going to say the primary effect of this document is endorsement of Christianity [when it covers all of history]?”
Katon represents 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, who filed their complaint in February 2017.
The plaintiffs 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 guidelines in July 2016.
But Breyer rejected those claims Thursday, finding the plaintiffs relied on hearsay and picked lines from emails out of context to support their contention that the faculty group harbored anti-Hindu bias.
The judge also found allegations that the state over-emphasized negative aspects of the caste system and singled out Hinduism as “a contributor to patriarchy” unfounded. The guidelines included language to clarify that the caste system and male-dominated structure were not unique to Hinduism or ancient India, Breyer wrote.
Regarding a sixth-grader’s complaint that her class was divided into castes and told the unfair system was derived from Hinduism, Breyer found such an exercise does not violate the Establishment Clause because “it does not involve the role playing of a devotional act, like taking communion.”
Additionally, Breyer shot down claims that the state portrays other religions as having divine origins while failing to do the same for Hinduism. The judge cited various lines from the state’s framework describing “ancient Hindu sages” and the concept of “Brahman as the divine principle of being.”
The judge further rejected complaints that the state promotes a “debunked, Orientalist theory” that present-day India and Pakistan were invaded in 1500 B.C. by Aryans, “a tribe of European origin” that “became the creators of Hindu civilization.”
Because the framework states that another view holds the language was “indigenous to India and spread northward,” Breyer found the state did not endorse the disputed Aryan invasion theory.
“This language deals with history—contested history, but history all the same,” Breyer wrote. “Whether or not there was an influx of Aryans into South Asia in 1500 BCE is appropriately the subject of a history and social science curriculum, and not actually a positive or negative statement about Hinduism.”
But the standards also direct students to “discuss the significance of the Aryan invasions.” That’s one reason Katon insists the state has embraced the “discredited” theory as fact and suggested to students that “only Caucasians can make a civilization a civilization.”
Because the Supreme Court is currently reviewing whether to alter the 48-year-old legal precedent established in Lemon, Katon predicted “it’s entirely possible that by the time we get to the 9th Circuit, there will be a shift in the standards that apply to whether the state violated the Establishment Clause in this case.”
During oral arguments before the high court Wednesday, some justices openly questioned whether judges should continue relying on the Lemon test to decide if government actions violate the Establishment Clause.
“Is it time for this court to thank Lemon for its services and send it on its way?” Justice Neil Gorsuch asked Wednesday during arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of a 40-foot-tall World War I memorial cross erected in a Maryland park in 1925.
But while the Lemon test remains the law of the land, Breyer concluded Thursday that the “primary effect” of California’s educational standards is to establish curriculum on ancient history and social sciences, not to disparage Hinduism or favor other religions.
The California Attorney General’s Office deferred comment to the California Department of Education, which did not immediately return an email and phone call seeking comment Thursday.