Establishment Clause

Lesson on Islam Didn't Violate Establishment Clause or Free Speech Clause

The Fourth Circuit rejects a challenge to a history class being shown a slide stating "Most [Muslims'] faith is stronger than the average [Christian's]," and being required to fill in the blanks in "There is no god but __ and Muhammad is the __ of Allah," as part of a worksheet on the "Five Pillars" of Islam.


From today's decision in Wood v. Arnold, which strikes me as quite correct:

As an eleventh-grade student, Wood was required to take a world history course, which was part of the school's social studies curriculum…. The smallest unit of the world history course, encompassing five days, was entitled "The Muslim World." The unit was "designed to explore, among other things, formation of Middle Eastern empires including the basic concepts of the Islamic faith and how it along with politics, culture, economics, and geography contributed to the development of those empires."

As part of the "Muslim World" unit, Wood's teacher presented the students with a PowerPoint slide entitled "Islam Today," which contrasted "peaceful Islam" with "radical fundamental Islam." The slide contained the statement that "Most Muslim's [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian" (the comparative faith statement) (underlining in original)….

Wood also was required to complete a worksheet summarizing the lesson on Islam. The worksheet addressed topics such as the growth and expansion of Islam, the "beliefs and practices" of Islam, and the links between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Part of the worksheet required the students to "fill in the blanks" to complete certain information comprising the "Five Pillars" of Islam. Included in that assignment was the statement: "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah[,]" a portion of a declaration known as the shahada (the shahada assignment). [Footnote: The underlined words reflect the parts of the statement that the students were required to complete.] For ease of reference, we collectively refer to the comparative faith statement and the shahada assignment as the "challenged materials."

The court concluded that the assignment didn't violate the Establishment Clause, because it had the permissible secular purpose of teaching about world religions, didn't have the effect of promoting or endorsing Islam, and didn't unduly entangle the government with religion (those are the three factors set forth by the Supreme Court's Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) precedent):

The Supreme Court has recognized the secular value of studying religion on a comparative basis. In this case, the comparative faith statement was part of an academic unit in which students studied Middle Eastern empires and the role of Islam. The unit did not focus exclusively on Islam's core principles, but explored "among other things, formation of Middle Eastern empires including the basic concepts of the Islamic faith and how it along with politics, culture, economics, and geography contributed to the development of those empires." Nothing in the record indicates that the comparative faith statement was made with a subjective purpose of advancing Islam over Christianity, or for any other predominately religious purpose. Nor does the record show that the proffered secular purpose of teaching about Muslim empires in the context of world history was pretextual….

Similarly, the shahada assignment was a tool designed to assess the students' understanding of the lesson on Islam. In total, the worksheet included 17 questions with 27 blank entries to be completed by the students on the history of Islam, "beliefs and practices" of Muslims, and links between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The students were not required to memorize the shahada, to recite it, or even to write the complete statement of faith. Instead, the worksheet included a variety of factual information related to Islam and merely asked the students to demonstrate their understanding of the material by completing the partial sentences. This is precisely the sort of academic exercise that the Supreme Court has indicated would not run afoul of the Establishment Clause. See Schempp, 374 U.S. at 225 ("Nothing we have said here indicates that such study … of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment." (emphasis added))….

[Moreover, t]he slide itself did not advocate any belief system but instead focused on the development of Islamic fundamentalism as a political force. And the shahada assignment appeared on the student worksheet under the heading "Beliefs and Practices: The Five Pillars." Thus, the assignment asked the students to identify the tenets of Islam, but did not suggest that a student should adopt those beliefs as her own…. As a matter of common sense, an objective observer would not perceive a singular statement such as the comparative faith statement, or a lone question about a religion's core principle on a fill-in-the-blank assignment, as an endorsement or disapproval of religion….

The court also held that the assignment didn't unconstitutionally compel speech:

We next consider Wood's Free Speech Clause challenge. Wood argues that the defendants violated her free speech rights by requiring her to complete in writing two missing words of a portion of the shahada, namely, that "[t]here is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." In her view, "the curriculum implemented and supervised by [d]efendants compelled [Wood] to confess by written word and deed her faith in Allah." We disagree with Wood's position….

Although a student's right against compelled speech in a public school may be asserted under various circumstances, that right has limited application in a classroom setting in which a student is asked to study and discuss materials with which she disagrees.

In the present case, the record is clear that the shahada assignment did not require Wood to profess or accept the tenets of Islam. The students were not asked to recite the shahada, nor were they required to engage in any devotional practice related to Islam. Cf. W. Va. Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 631-32 (1943) (distinguishing between compelling students to declare a belief through mandatory recital of the pledge of allegiance, and "merely … acquaint[ing students] with the flag salute so that they may be informed as to what it is or even what it means"). Instead, the shahada assignment required Wood to write only two words of the shahada as an academic exercise to demonstrate her understanding of the world history curriculum. On these facts, we conclude that Wood's First Amendment right against compelled speech was not violated.

Whether most Muslims' faith is stronger than the average Christian's is a complicated question; so is, more generally, how one should teach about religion—a tremendously important aspect of human history, psychology, and sociology—in a way that's intellectually honest and that lets students discuss the subject honestly and thoughtfully. (That, of course, is also true of many other controversial topics.) But the Establishment Clause and the Free Speech Clause don't prevent all or even most such teaching

NEXT: Court Reverses Order That Barred Former Church Member from Saying Anything About Pastor

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  1. The smallest unit of the world history course, encompassing five days,

    Five days. Quite a concession.

    1. Seems pretty reasonable — I found the first semester syllabus, and just uploaded it here; you can see that the first semester deals with 1500 to the early 1800s (more or less), and spends 15 days on the Renaissance and Reformation, 5 on the Muslim World, 18 on the Age of Exploration, 10 on Absolutism, 18 on Enlightenment, Revolutions, and Napoleon, and 10 on Nationalism and Latin American Revolution. It looks like they devoted 5 of the 76 class days on non-Western civilizations, and chose to do all that on the Middle East (more or less). The controversial choice, at least to me, is choosing the Middle East over the Far East for that unit (or a mixture of both), but it doesn’t seem an unreasonable choice.

      1. Well, 1500 to 1800 is hardly “world history.”

        And if you want to focus on that particular period I’d say the Ottoman Empire alone deserves more than five days. After all, that leads directly to modern day problems in the Middle East.

        Clearly, this is a highly western-oriented curriculum. I mean, devoting 12 days to WWI and the Russian Revolution seems disproportionate to me.

        Probably the issue is that a class in “world history” that takes one semester is nonsense, so it is forced to deal primarily with matters of concern to the West.

        1. It’s world history 1500 to the present. Over two semesters. Typically “Ancient and classical history” is before 1500.

          It is western oriented, but over this time period, Western culture had a disproportionate influence upon the world today. WWI, which you seem to complain about, directly relates to the Ottoman Empire and the modern day issues, especially its dismemberment.

        2. 1500 is pretty close to the start of a global society, so “world history” is not a bad moniker.

          1. I missed the part about 1500 to the present. Still, even in that time frame I’d say the Muslim world deserves more than five days, especially in a two-semester course. It was not long before 1500 that Western Europe began on the path that led it to surpass the Muslims and the civilizations further east.

            I’m not complaining about WWI, just comparing the time devoted to it to the five days. It’s true of course that that the dismemberment of the empire following the war has a lot to do with present day issues in the Middle East. So too do the various later Western involvements in the Muslim world, around oil and other matters.

            1. Sure, I’d take time from the Age of Discovery (they just focus on the Atlantic) and teach about the spread of Islam outside of the Middle East, particularly in maritime Asia, India, and Oceania.

    2. “The smallest unit of the world history course, encompassing five days”

      My question is whether any five days of history deserves an entire unit.

  2. I don’t object to the worksheet for the comparative religion, citing the tenets of a given belief system.

    The phrase “most Muslims’ faith is stronger than the average Christian’s” is more complicated and troubling, especially coming from an authority figure.

    1. Yeah that one stuck out to me as well. How is something like that even measured?

    2. it should be “Most muslims are more fanatical in their display of piousness”

    3. Do you think it establishes religion, though?

      1. “Establishes”…no. (Which is different from a practice regarding the establishment).

        What’s troubling from my opinion is it’s a statement from a figure of authority that simultaneously promotes one religion and discourages a second religion, by way of a comparative statement.

        Now, if the teacher had said simply “Most Muslims have great faith”, I wouldn’t have an issue.

        1. I’ll admit that kind of value judgement presented as fact took me aback as well. I think it was pretty bad pedagogy.
          Still don’t think it’s a Constitutional violation though.

          I think you and I are in alignment here, actually.

    4. Do you have any evidence that it’s not currently true?

      I’ll admit that I don’t have any evidence at the middle of the spectrum, either, but the number of news reports of Muslim suicide bombers vs Christian suicide bombers does suggest that at least at the far end of the spectrum (those willing to die for their faith), those Muslims hold their faith more strongly.

      Actually, I suppose I do have some evidence at the middle of the spectrum, too. Of my self-professed Muslim friends and colleagues, more than half pray five times a day. Of my self-professed Christian friends and colleagues, maybe half are “Christmas and Easter” Christians. I concede those are anecdotes and not statistically relevant data. But they do tend to support the teacher’s assertion.

      1. Since inquiring minds want to know:

        In the U.S., Pew (July 2017) finds little difference between Muslims and Christians in this regard.

        65% of polled Muslims, vs. 68% of polled Christians a say religion is “very important” in their lives.

        Now 42% of American Muslims say they say all 5 prayers daily. (there is no Christian equivalent)

        And 43% say they attend their mosque weekly, whereas 47% of Christians say they attend church weekly. (but research shows people overstate things like rates of churchgoing, so keep that in mind)

        64% of Muslims and 60% of Christians say there is “more than one way” to interpret their religion.

        So there you have it.

        Pew findings on Muslims

        1. Of course in a lot of Muslim countries one has little choice but to appear hyper-religious — or face severe sanctions.

  3. didn’t have the effect of promoting or endorsing Islam

    This from the exact same people who would prevent a kid from wearing a cross around their neck to school if they could. Because My Child might accidentally see it and be influenced.

    It’s one thing to teach about religions, and another to functionally practice making a statement.

    Cue a million schools adding core Christian teachings with lessons forcing kids to fill in the blanks of John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer.

    What a tangled web we weave.

    1. And the 10 commandments are gonna be back with a vengeance.

      Y’all brought this on yourselves.

      1. the 10 commandments are gonna be back with a vengeance

        Spite-monuments best monuments.

      2. I had an atheist friend who sent his kids to a Catholic school. He said the school had high standards and taught strong moral values, but he told his kids to ignore all the “religion stuff.”

        Later he became a Ba’hai and sent his kids to an international Ba’hai school. There’s no moral here; I just thought it was interesting.

    2. I was thinking maybe the Nicene creed. I don’t think you can really say you’ve studied Christianity until you know the Nicene creed.

      I wouldn’t require them to memorize it, of course, just read it out loud to prove they’d read it.

      1. Some of those recitations from Sabrina on Netflix where they worship the devil must be real, not invented, and so are fair game for children to learn about and memorize.

      2. “I wouldn’t require them to memorize it, of course, just read it out loud to prove they’d read it.”

        Something like the Gettysburg Address (which at one time kids actually did have to memorize).

    3. This from the exact same people who would prevent a kid from wearing a cross around their neck to school if they could. Because My Child might accidentally see it and be influenced.

      The best persecution is purely hypothetical persecution.

      1. People who believe white, heterosexual, Christian males are persecuted in America are going to hate the next half-century of American progress.

        1. The SJWs have shown they’re perfectly capable of going after gays, nonwhites and, to a large extent, nonchristians for lack of wokeness.

        2. ‘progress’? you mean.. decline into a third world country?

          1. I mean the type of progress Americans have experienced since 1950.

          2. I mean the type of progress Americans have experienced since 1950.

    4. Perhaps you didn’t in your school, but in mine we did cover core Christian teachings. The 10 Commandments and how Jesus either replaced, affirmed, or supplemented them as well as how he fulfills Messianic prophecy. No big outrage here.

      1. did the class get baptized? Saying the Shahada is equivalent to being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So was the entire class baptized?

        1. Saying the Shahada is equivalent to being baptized

          Magic words!

        2. No, it’s not equivalent. You can be baptized unwillingly unless you’re of a denomination that does adult baptism. In Sharia you can’t convert without intent.

          Again, the students did not recite anything anyway, they just filled in blanks on a worksheet.

          1. Not true. Conversion to islam requires only the reciting of the shahada…

            And once you have converted, to deny the conversion (intentional or not) makes one apostate. Which, to the more traditional sects of islam, makes you fair game for a beheading.

            1. Flight-ER-Doc is wrong and gormadoc is correct. While the ceremony is fairly thin, the actual conversion does explicitly require intent. Merely saying the words without meaning them does not create a religious conversion.

              And more to the point, filling in two words in a worksheet is not “reciting of the shahada”.

            2. It really doesn’t. You have to mean it. It requires knowing submission to Allah and the acceptance of Muhammad as his prophet. If you do not intend it Allah is not going to accept you as a Muslim. What ISIS combatants and Pakistani villagers (who aren’t part of traditionalist sects but rather radical sects) believe works has no influence on how it has worked for hundreds of years as established by numerous clerics and scholars.

              A central part of Islam is intent. You cannot unintentionally submit your will to Allah, much as you cannot unintentionally submit your will to anyone else. Do you think the Christian God automatically excepts everyone baptized as a child as one of His own?

        3. It’s often helpful to read the opinion before posting. Nobody had to recite the Shahada. The challenged assignment only required a student to write in two words missing from a sentence extracted from the Shahada.

    5. Can you cite three examples of someone trying to prevent a kid from wearing a cross?

      1. “According to a letter sent on Thursday to Hillsborough County Public Schools from Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit organization specializing in legal cases involving constitutional law, math teacher Lora Jane Riedas allegedly told at least three of her students that they were not allowed to wear the Christian emblem because it represented a gang symbol. One of the crosses, according to Liberty Counsel, is less than an inch tall.”

        “A school told a child to remove a Christian cross she was wearing even though it lets Sikh children wear bangles as part of their religion.”

        “A Minnesota high school student who wears rosary beads to school in support of his cancer-stricken grandmother was ordered to pocket them by school district officials, who said the beads could be a symbol of gang membership.”

        “A sixth-grade girl said she was told that she can’t wear a necklace that resembles a rosary because it violates the dress code at the Fremont Public Schools.”

        “The school in Colorado Springs is the second in two months to find itself embroiled in a rosary conflict, as federal judges ruled in September against a rosary ban in upstate New York.”

        “The ACLU of Texas (2011) opposed a public high school’s policy prohibiting students from wearing visible rosaries and crosses in the Brownsville Independent School District.”

        There are plenty more.

  4. “The slide contained the statement that “Most Muslim’s [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian” (the comparative faith statement) (underlining in original)….”

    That would have made more sense if any of the quoted words had been underlined…

    And, yeah, I don’t see how THAT passes muster.

    1. Whoops, underlining fixed, thanks!

    2. I would agree there. In the court decision, the school’s content specialist does as well.

      “The school’s content specialist, Jack Tuttle, testified that use of the comparative faith statement was inappropriate, and that he would have advised a teacher who was considering teaching this statement “[n]ot to do that.”

      The issue is, it pretty clearly states one religion (or their believers) is/are “better” (in some context). That’s problematic.

      1. I don’t see why that would make them better in any sense.

        IMO strong religious faith is no marker of virtue of any sort.

        1. “IMO strong religious faith is no marker of virtue of any sort.”

          Ahh. The difference between a believer and a non-believer. (Actually I agree with you, but that’s a common marker of being or not being in a faith community)

  5. What’s with comparing a median to a mean?

  6. I certainly wouldn’t call for courts to second-guess curricular decisions dealing with the historical influence of major religions.

    Of course, this supposes that the influence of various religions on historical developments gets taught boldly and without waffling.

    Do Judaism. And Christianity. Both influential in many parts of the world (Judaism also influential as part of the background of Christianity). Likewise the various religious and philosophical traditions of Asia, and so forth.

  7. Reciting the Shahada is the only requirement in becoming a muslim….. School ‘projects’ that require this is covert proselytizing.

    And courts that don’t understand and acknowledge this are not just wrong, they are willfully ignorant.

    1. This book

      has some examples of Ottoman Christians getting tricked into reciting the shahada, then when they insisted they were still Christians, they were martyred as “apostates from Islam.” So I guess there may be some point to this.

      1. (I mean you may have a point)

      2. Which is why there is such an emphasis to have students complete ‘class assignments’ like this…

        Such an assignment serves little to no pedagogical purpose, btw….

    2. You also have to intend the meaning. It’s not just a simple recitation that matters. The students here didn’t have to recite it or write it out anyway.

    3. This is nonsense. No one becomes a Muslim by quoting those words without accepting their meaning.

      1. Well, I agree, not any more than reciting the Nicene creed actually makes you a Christian. But on the same principle that you can’t force students to say the Pledge of Allegiance, you can’t force them to recite the Nicene creed, or the Shahada.

        But what Eddy is talking about isn’t contingent on the person reciting it believing themselves a Muslim. It’s more about what would give Muslims inclined to an excuse to treat you as an apostate rather than simply a believer in a different religion.

        The status of apostates in Islam is pretty dire.

        Anyway, I suspect my chief complaint about this class would be that the presentation of Islam wasn’t balanced, it was skewed in a positive direction.

        1. No one was reciting the Shahada.

          Neither do I think these children were putting themselves in danger of being executed as apostates by Ottomans.

          1. But what about all those Maryland ISIS irregulars? I’ve heard they work closely with the Irish mafia.

        2. It’s more about what would give Muslims inclined to an excuse to treat you as an apostate rather than simply a believer in a different religion.

          Well, a few murderous lunatic Muslims, anyway. But guess what? If someone wants to kill you they are going to find a reason.

          If ISIS grabs you wandering around Syria they are not going to say, “Well, we’d like to behead this American SOB, but can’t, because he’s not an apostate. Wait! Maybe when he was in the 11th grade he studied Islam in some class and had to fill in blanks. Whew. That was close. We almost let him go.”

          1. But, still, that’s what Eddy was talking about.

            I agree, that is not a significant consideration in this case. It’s more a matter of non-Christian religions getting a pass on establishment clause concerns, as far as I’m concerned.

            1. I know what Eddy was talking about. Since there actually were Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire I doubt this practice, whatever it was, was at all common. Indeed, the Ottomans welcomed Jews after their expulsion from Spain by “The Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand and Isabella, so maybe they weren’t as intolerant as all that.

              There were periodic terrible riots against Venetian and Genoese merchants in Constantinople, but I think these were driven by economic and political competition rather than religion.

              And what kind of pass do you think Islam got here?

    4. I just recited it now. I suppose I’ll have to give away the ham sandwich I brought for lunch.

      1. Well, stay away from any mutatawwi..

        1. I suppose I’m at as much risk as the kids were. I can live with that.

  8. The phrase “most Muslims’ faith is stronger than the average Christian’s” is fatuous and unattractively “woke”. There is no way to determine the faith of the “average Muslim” or “average Christian” because both terms are meaninglessly vague, nor is there a meaningful standard for measuring the “strength” of a religion, nor for determining if having a “strong” faith is desirable in the first place. Perhaps it is better to have a weak Christian faith than a strong Muslim faith. Perhaps both are undesirable. Whoever wrote that statement thought that s/he was being clever.

    1. they’re simply quoting from the Quran itself..

    2. Perhaps they were just trying to challenge the students to think or spur discussion. But I agree they shouldn’t be stating that as if it were an objectively provable fact.

  9. This isn’t a constitutional issue, but many people still have the sophisticated Enlightenment admiration for Islam as a this-worldly religion without celibacy or theological disputes – just some honest desert unitarians. It’s highly naive, but it’s good if you’re looking for something as a rod with which to beat Christianity.

  10. insanity that this level of cancer is able to establish itself. Byhoodwinking students to memorize the shahada, you’re only validating an illiterate pedo con artist’s doctrine.

    1. Do you favor a particular flavor of superstition, Dr. Forrester, or do you choose reason?

  11. I object to teaching, in English classes, the play “Waiting for Godot,” due to the first 60% of that last word in the title.

    An obvious attempt to jam Christianity down the throats of our children.

  12. Another reason to end public schools and shift our entire education system to private and charter schools.

    What these schools would then teach is up to the school and parents would have a say since they would fairly free market education systems.

    5 days to learn about Islam is probably on par with other topics covered that span a similar time in history.

    1. Adults should ask themselves are kids learning things that are too specific when it comes to history? Learning about Shahada is probably too specific. Its like having kids learn about the Bible. History class should be covering general historical topics that give American kids a thorough knowledge base about historical facts.

      1. It’s similar to the way the media covers stories. You’ve got your narrative, and then you throw in little out of context details as a sort of flavoring ingredient, to lend authenticity to the narrative.

  13. It is blindingly obvious to anyone who has looked into the subject that it is perfectly constitutional to teach about religion. You can’t teach that any particular religion is true or false, or require students to believe in any particular religion, but you can teach as a matter of factual information what any religion’s tenets are, or, where they are disputed within the religion, what the competing tenets are. You can teach factual information about religious practices or the influence of the religion on the socieities where it is practised. If you think it pedagogically advisable, you can have students make construction paper Stars of David or crescents or do other experiential learning, though you have to be careful if a student asserts a religious objection.
    Despite all the people from the President* on down who talk about religion classes in the public schools, we are unlikely to get them, even though they are lawful and, if honestly done, a good idea, precisely because almost nobody pushing them wants honest, academically sound courses about religion.

  14. I guess those units on Greek & Norse mythology unwittingly converted me into *gasp* a pagan worshipper of Athena and Odin. Though come to think of it, I have always thought Osiris was pretty cool!

    1. I’ve long thought the ancient Greek religion was the one most consistent with the facts: everything is run by committee and its members are working at cross-purposes.

  15. “Most Muslim’s [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian” (the comparative faith statement) (underlining in original)….”
    Meh… Outside of STEM, so much is subjectively taught with poorly conceived ‘facts’, that college professors must first unteach students before they can begin to teach them.

    This student would have shown growth and development, and had something positive and powerful for his college entrance essay, had he thoroughly researched the matter in question, presented his findings to the teacher, and demonstrated that he could debate in a scholarly manner.
    Instead now any college or employer will see that this person’s forum for dispute is the courts, al the while playing the aggrieved wounded individual. Most organizations have no place for the latter.

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