Christian Families Sue Over School’s Islam Role-Playing

Daily News Article   —   Posted on October 20, 2005

(by Josh Gerstein, Oct. 20, 2005, SAN FRANCISCO – A federal appeals court here heard arguments yesterday that a public school’s effort to acquaint students with Islam went too far by having the students don Islamic dress, recite phrases from the Koran, and mimic the fasting associated with the Muslim observance of Ramadan.

Two Christian families from Contra Costa County, Calif., east of Oakland, charged in a 2002 lawsuit that a role-playing curriculum used to teach seventh-graders about Islamic history and culture violated the Constitution’s prohibition against the establishment of religion. The students also engaged in a “race to Mecca.”

A federal judge in San Francisco threw out the case in 2003, but the families appealed. An attorney for the families, Edward White III, told a three judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday that during the eight-week unit on Islam, religious teachings were described as “facts” and students were instructed to wear name tags that included the religion’s star-and-crescent imagery. “All of these actions are crossing the line,” said Mr. White, a lawyer with a Michigan-based legal advocacy group for Christians, the Thomas More Law Center.

Mr. White also accused the courts of applying a double standard that is more tolerant of Islam in public schools than of Christian and Jewish faiths. “If this case dealt with the teaching of Catholicism … of course people would say you’re endorsing religion,” the lawyer said.

The arguments against the curriculum got a skeptical reception from the appeals court judges. Judge Dorothy Nelson said that many aspects of the instruction were cultural and historical. “Doesn’t this seem more like a secular experience than a religious experience?” she asked. “Are you saying our children should not be taught the history of all the religions of the world?

Judge Johnnie Rawlinson took issue with Mr. White’s suggestion that the courts have discouraged role-playing in teaching about religion. She pointed to a 1994 case in which the 9th Circuit ruled that public schools could use readings about sorcery and witchcraft without running afoul of the Constitution.

Mr. White replied by noting that the court ruled in 2002 that the mere use of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in public school classrooms was unconstitutional. At least two of the judges at yesterday’s session immediately pointed out that the Supreme Court vacated that widely criticized decision, but Mr. White noted that a federal judge in Sacramento recently held that the 9th Circuit ruling remains valid.

An attorney for the school district, Linda Lye, said no constitutional violation took place because nothing the teachers did amounted to a religious service. “There was nothing sacred or worshipful about any of the activities the children participated in,” she said, comparing the situation to the use of religious music by school choirs, a practice the courts have permitted.

Ms. Lye said the lesson in which students engaged in a “race to Mecca” was not a simulation of the holy pilgrimage or haj, but simply “an educational, fun classroom game.”

The lawyer said none of the teachers or administrators involved in the case is Muslim, so they would have little reason to try to convert children to Islam. “It would just be bizarre for the school to have a secret agenda to indoctrinate students in a religion to which they did not subscribe,” she said.

The school’s attorney noted that, in a deposition, one of the children who is a plaintiff in the suit linked his discomfort with the role-playing to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America. “I felt weird doing it after 9/11,” the student, Chase Eklund, said.

“The objection here was actually a political objection,” Ms. Lye asserted.

“Why say 9/11 was only a political and not a religious event?” Judge Carlos Bea retorted. He also suggested that the unit on Islam seemed more involved and more religious than another unit on medieval culture. “Did they spend eight weeks on that dressing as priests and crusaders?” Judge Bea asked.

None of the judges declared a position on the case yesterday. Based on their questions, Judges Nelson and Rawlinson seemed inclined to support the school, while Judge Bea was more difficult to read.

The curriculum materials in dispute, titled, “Islam: A Simulation of Islamic History and Culture,” were developed by a private publisher in conjunction with two Muslim groups, the Islamic Education and Information Center and the Council of Islamic Education.

In an interview, Mr. White said that while the curriculum may have been intended to embrace Muslims, it could offend some who view the re-enactments and play-acting as profane. “It trivializes religion, which I think is, in effect, a violation of the Constitution,” he said.

The superintendent of the Byron Unified School District, Thomas Meyer, said only two sets of parents objected to the program. No teachers in the district are presently using the Islam simulation materials, Mr. Meyer said, though the school district claims the right permit their use again in the future.

Another attorney for the district, Stephen Berzon, said he saw no problem with the schools replicating certain religious rituals. “If they did a simulation of a Passover Seder or a Last Supper, I don’t think anyone would take offense,” he said.

California state education standards require public schools to teach seventh graders about the role of Islam in civilizations of the Middle Ages, but a state-approved textbook cautions against the use of role-playing in instruction about religious practices.

Ms. Lye said the warning doesn’t mean such techniques are illegal but that they fall into a legal “gray area” that could get a school system hauled into court, as happened in this instance.

Reprinted here with permission from the New York Sun.  Visit the website at