SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The fight to revive a lawsuit over how California portrays Hinduism in public school lessons largely hinges on whether state educational standards are policies — which can be reviewed by courts — or curriculum, which cannot be.
During oral arguments before a Ninth Circuit panel Tuesday, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder asked how the court can review a curriculum decision given the Ninth Circuit’s 1998 ruling in Monteiro v. The Tempe Union School District, which found a school district cannot be sued for making students read Mark Twain’s classic, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” despite the book’s repeated use of racial slurs that plaintiffs said could harm the self-esteem of young Black students.
“What is the authority that says we can oversee the content of curriculum when the Monteiro case seems to indicate otherwise,” Schroeder, a Jimmy Carter appointee, asked.
Representing California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials (CAPEEM), a group that promotes the accurate portrayal of Hinduism in schools, and three Hindu parents suing on behalf of their children, attorney Glenn Katon argued state-approved educational guidelines are policies the court can review.
“When the state Board of Education approves standards and frameworks, there’s no disputing those are policies,” Katon said.
Katon’s clients sued the California Board of Education in February 2017, claiming it adopted curriculum guidelines in 2016 that tie negative aspects of the caste system to Hinduism, promote a “completely debunked” Aryan invasion theory regarding the origin of Hinduism and portray other religions as having divine origins while failing to do the same for Hinduism. The complaint alleged violations of the Establishment Clause, due process, free exercise of religion, and equal protection under the law.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer dismissed most of the lawsuit in July 2017 but advanced an Establishment Clause claim. In February 2019, he granted the state’s motion for summary judgment, finding “a reasonable observer would not view the standards and framework as primarily denigrating Hinduism.”
Seeking to reverse those rulings, Katon argued Tuesday that the state standards describe Hinduism “in purely secular terms,” unlike other religions, and subject Hindu children to lessons that disparage their faith.
Schroeder asked how the plaintiffs can take isolated portions of the educational standards and bill them as policies.
“I’m not sure how we look to statements that you believe are false to create a policy that you believe is hostile,” Schroeder said.
Katon replied that his clients identified parts of the state’s educational policies that disparage Hinduism. Those pieces of the policy should be deemed unconstitutional, he argued.
U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel Bress, a Donald Trump appointee, asked how historical disagreements, such as the disputed role of Aryans in the origin of Hindu civilization, translate to denigrating a religion.
“What’s the basis for saying the standards disparage Hinduism,” Bress asked.
Katon cited state guidelines that describe the Bhagavad-Gita, a divine Hindu text, as literature.
“To say a religion’s holy book is a human creation when the standards certainly don’t do that for the Koran, Torah or New Testament,” Katon replied.
Defending the California Department of Education, attorney Thomas Prouty cited Judge Breyer’s February 2019 ruling, which found the state’s guidelines discussed “problematic facts about religions other than Hinduism” and highlighted “several positive things about Hinduism.”
Prouty also called attention to Breyer’s finding that the plaintiffs cherry-picked lines from emails out of context to make it appear as though the South Asian Faculty Group, a group of history teachers who recommended changes adopted by the state Board of Education, harbored anti-Hindu bias.
“Judge Breyer in his summary judgment ruling used the term ‘misleading’ three times — each time was in reference to the plaintiffs’ characterizations or generalizations of documents,” Prouty said.
Addressing the role of the caste system in Hinduism, Prouty noted the framework does not describe it as “bad or strange or unfair,” but rather says that it provided “social stability and gave an identity to each community.”
He further noted that when new guidelines were being drafted, members of the Sikh community argued against eliminating discussion of the caste system because that would be “erasing the origins of their belief system.”
Katon replied that his clients have never sought to erase references to the caste system from school curriculum.
“It’s just that caste should not be mentioned as a Hindu religious belief, just like slavery should not be described as a Jewish or Christian religious belief, even though there is mention of it in the Old and New Testaments,” Katon said.
After 43 minutes of debate, the panel took the arguments under submission.
Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas, a Bill Clinton appointee, joined Bress and Schroeder on the panel.
In 2009, CAPEEM settled a previous lawsuit against the state Board of Education over the portrayal of Hinduism in school textbooks. California paid $175,000 to resolve that litigation.