Judge Declines to Block Anti-Islamophobia Effort in San Diego Schools

SAN DIEGO (CN) – One of the largest school districts in California won’t be preliminarily barred from implementing an initiative to combat bullying of Muslim students, a federal judge found Tuesday in rejecting a parent group’s claim the policy violates the civil rights of students of other faiths.

In her 54-page order, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant said she “cannot grant the extraordinary remedy” of a preliminary injunction against the San Diego Unified School District’s school board to prevent it from implementing its anti-Muslim bullying initiative.

Parent group Citizens for Quality Education San Diego asked Bashant this past February to enjoin their children’s school district from implementing the measure they claim amounts to a “subtle, discriminatory scheme” based on religion and a violation of the civil rights of other students.

The parent group claimed the district’s reported instances of bullying were insufficient to show “a Muslim bullying crisis even existed” and that the district inappropriately partnered with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) – which was not a party to the lawsuit – to come up with the bullying-prevention initiative.

The school board claims it adopted the initiative “in the wake of the increased instances of Islamophobia following Donald Trump’s election campaign.” It also said it relied on the oral testimony of Muslim students at school board meetings “who were purportedly bullied at schools.”

But even though the school board voted to adopt implementing “action steps” in its anti-Islamophobia plan in April 2017, it never came to fruition. Instead, the school district opted to revise the anti-bullying program to be more inclusive after facing public backlash for focusing on Islamophobia.

The district has since entered into a formal partnership with the Anti-Defamation League to implement the “No Place for Hate” program which “is a strong anti-bullying effort that highlights and fosters positive school environments, climates and cultures for all students” and “does not emphasize any one religion.”

Much of a July hearing on the injunction request focused on whether the parent group’s claims were moot since the approved plan was never adopted.

While Bashant found the revised policy does not moot the case based on voluntary cessation of the anti-Islamophobia initiative, she said that since the district abandoned the action steps recommended by CAIR the request to bar the district from entering into a formal partnership with the civil rights organization the case is moot.

“The revised policy cannot moot plaintiffs’ challenge to the initiative. The preliminary injunction record shows that addressing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bullying remains an objective of the district,” Bashant found.

She found the parent group’s claims of civil rights violations under the California Constitution and First Amendment don’t hold up since the district has revised its anti-bullying policy.

Furthermore, the district has provided instructional materials for other religions and religious groups.

“It is simply not accurate for plaintiffs to suggest that the district excludes organizations with focuses on other religions or religious groups from the district,” Bashant wrote.

She also rejected the idea that students of other religions do not benefit from the goal of preventing bullying of Muslim students and noted that preventing bullying behavior or conduct directed at Muslim students does not “establish a preference for Islam and Muslim students.”

“Plaintiffs’ zero-sum view of who ‘benefits’ from the district’s efforts to address Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bullying is not persuasive.  The initiative aims to address the behavior and conduct of ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘anti-Muslim bullying.’ There is nothing inherent in addressing such behavior and conduct that limits any benefit to solely those who are Muslim,” Bashant wrote.

“The evil that measures like the initiative seek to address can harm more than those who are directly targeted,” the judge added.

Paul Plevin attorney Mike Sullivan represents the school district. He said in a phone interview Bashant’s order was a “lengthy, well-considered decision.”

“The district is pleased that the court recognized the district was not trying to advance any religious interest but was acting to protect the safety of students, which benefits all students,” Sullivan said.

“The district’s actions were never intended to prefer one religious group over another but were intended to make sure there was no bullying of all students,” Sullivan said in noting the district had zeroed in on Islamphobia, which had received national attention at the time

Daniel Piedra from the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which represented the parents, said by telephone Wednesday the group is evaluating the next steps but is likely to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit.

“The court’s comprehensive ruling rightfully recognized the sensitive First Amendment concerns in the public schools. But the judge failed to address the critical facts and well-established constitutional law proving that the district is clearly discriminating in favor of one religious sect,” Piedra said. “Despite today’s ruling, our clients remain fully confident they have the Constitution on their side.”

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