PHILADELPHIA (CN) — The Third Circuit posed tough questions to both sides Thursday as it considered whether a seventh grade social studies teacher glorified Islam in the lesson plan.
“Basically our position is that these videos presented religious opinion and beliefs as if they were fact, that they encouraged Islamic prayer and presented Islam as the superior religion, and encouraged 12-year-olds to convert to Islam,” attorney Richard Thompson of the Thomas More Law Center said this morning at oral arguments in Philadelphia.
Thompson represents a Chatham, New Jersey, mother named Libby Hilsenrath who first went on Fox News and then brought a federal complaint over two videos that her son was assigned to watch as part of his World Cultures and Geography class in 2018.
Hilsenrath slams the first recording, “Intro to Islam,” as a "conversion video," saying it includes phrases like “Allah is the one God” and “may God help us all find the true faith, Islam.” The second video, which explains the five pillars of Islam, concludes with two cartoon boys, one Muslim and one not, walking off to “learn how to pray.” Hilsenrath also objected to a fill-in-the-blank worksheet that her son was given, making him write out, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger," the words to an Islamic prayer called the shahada.
Though Hilsenrath said the videos presented Islamic teachings as fact in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, a federal judge granted the school district summary judgment late last year, finding that teaching students about religion is not the same as indoctrinating the students in the faith.
Seeking a reversal, Hilsenrath's attorney argued Thursday that the school would not portray Christianity in such a flattering light or risk the same type of lawsuit.
"If Muslim parents learned that they sent their child to public schools, that they pay for, and were taught that Christianity was the superior religion, they would be rightfully outraged," Thompson said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman pressed the lawyer for the school on what the students were taught about other faiths, but attorney Ruby Kumar-Thompson emphasized that the school met its obligation so long as the focus of the lesson was to educate objectively.
“I don’t believe the Establishment Clause requires equal time,” said Kumar-Thompson, who is with the firm Cleary Giacobbe. “It only requires neutrality.”
But Hardiman questioned whether the videos at issue here were truly neutral.
“How wouldn’t a seventh grader take this as a promotion for Islam,” the George W. Bush appointee asked.
Kumar-Thompson noted in response that public schools play a vital role in educating children about the world, so lessons cannot always be so black and white.
“Not everything needs to be presented as fact, there's also critical-thinking skills needed to be presented,” said Kumar-Thompson.
Attorneys for both parties did not immediately respond to email seeking comment.
Weighing in on the case Thursday, James Fraser, a history and education professor at New York University, called it critical for students to learn about different faiths in neutral terms.
“In the 21st century, failing to teach about Islam means giving a child an incomplete education and failing in one of the school's basic civic duties,” Fraser said in an email. “The teaching needs to be done carefully and to note that there are as many differences among Muslims as there are among Christians, who are liberal, conservative, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox. Islam should not be taught in a way that condemns nor valorizes, but as a major force in today's world with millions of believers.”
Hardiman will decide the case along with U.S. Circuit Judges Michael Chagares, a fellow Bush appointee, and Paul Matey, who was nominated by President Donald Trump.
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