Mark Grabowski: School’s Islam assignment displays ignorance on all sides

lawAn Augusta County high school teacher’s controversial assignment this month involving Islam is the latest unfortunate example of ignorance in America.

Ignorance of the law, that is.

The Augusta County, Va. public school district was closed Dec. 18 after outraged parents voiced concerns over a homework assignment asking students to write Islamic religious statements. One parent even accused the school of “Muslim indoctrination.” Many observers have criticized the school parents for being ignorant and intolerant.

While some parents have undoubtedly overreacted and deserve ridicule, the assignment seems to have been in violation of “separation of church and state,” a legal doctrine set forth in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And that’s not OK, either.

Although students may be taught about religion, public schools may not teach religion. It’s an important distinction, and the line was arguably crossed in the geography class at Riverheads High School in Staunton, Va.

Given that the assignment’s stated learning goal was to “give [students] an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy,” why have students copy — of all things — an Islamic creed? The unnecessary interjection of religion into the assignment put the school district on very shaky legal ground.

This controversy harkens back to a similar situation faced by a Pennsylvania school district — except that one involved Christianity. In a 2009 case, Busch vs. Marple Newtown School District, a federal court ruled against allowing Bible verses to be read aloud as part of a show-and-tell assignment.

The lawsuit stemmed from an in-class assignment in which students were invited to present important aspects of their lives to their classmates. In addition, students’ parents were invited to “share a talent, short game, small craft, or story” with the class that would highlight something about their child. One student made a poster displaying a church and asked his mom to read five Bible verses to the class.

After the principal blocked the presentation, saying it was “against the law … of separation of church and state,” the parent sued. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the parent, stating, “reading from the Bible or other religious text is more than a message and unquestionably conveys a strong sense of spiritual and moral authority … Parents of public school kindergarten students may reasonably expect their children will not become captive audiences to an adult’s reading of religious texts.”

If one student’s parent reading a handful of verses from a religious text was unlawful, it follows that a teacher requiring students to write statements found in the Quran would also be problematic.

Americans United For Separation of Church and State agreed the “lesson plan was problematic.” In a press release, the organization stated: “A statement of faith could be studied as part of an objective course about world religions, but students can do that without writing it out. If students were expected to copy passages from the New Testament, Hindu scriptures or even Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion there would be obvious problems. If [the teacher] wanted to help students understand how challenging calligraphy can be, there are other examples she could have chosen.”

Moreover, the Joint Statement of Current Law on Religion in the Public Schools, which is co-signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, American Muslim Council and many other religious and legal organizations, states: “teachers may not require students to modify, include or excise religious views in their assignments.”

Augusta’s assignment arguably violated those guidelines, since it required students to write out in Arabic the Shahada, an Islamic statement of faith that translates to “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.”

Some parents who fought to block the assignment may have been motivated by the wrong reasons, such as Islamophobia. But those who support the teacher are equally ignorant — about the law.

Mark Grabowski is a lawyer and teaches communications law at National University in California.

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