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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