A Maryland high school student last week lost an appeal in a lawsuit over religion lessons in her junior year world history class at La Plata High School in Charles County. In Wood v. Arnold, Caleigh Wood contended that a slide used in a presentation that stated “Most Muslim’s [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian” impermissibly advanced one religion over another. She also said that an exercise that required her to fill in the blanks in the Muslim shahada, a central confession of Islam, required her to make a statement of faith.
A three-judge panel from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Examining the two statements in context, the judges found that neither unconstitutionally advanced Islam but primarily served the secular purpose of teaching about the religion. The judges contrasted the facts before it with situations involving conduct it had found unconstitutional, such as asking students to stand for a graduation prayer or posting religious texts on the classroom wall without further explanation. “Academic freedom would not long survive in an environment in which courts micromanage school curricula and parse singular statements made by teachers,” the judges ruling stated.
While stressing the importance of context, the judges declined to consider other parts of the curriculum to which Wood also objected. She alleged in an amended complaint in a lower court that she was “instructed from the text of the Qur’an” and “instructed that righteous women are ... obedient” to men, and she complained that the course devoted only a single day to the study of Christianity, while multiple days were spent studying Islam. The 4th Circuit panel said she waived those arguments by not presenting them on appeal.
Attorney David Carroll, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Christian Action Network, said that “the court’s refusal to consider the larger factual context of instruction about Islam, including the absence of similar teaching about other religions, was fatal.” While teaching comparative religions is appropriate, he said that in this case “there did not appear to be any true comparison made between Islam and other religions.”
Wood’s attorneys are still considering whether to appeal to the entire 4th Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court. —Steve West