By Bob Egelko
A Contra Costa County (Calif.) school was educating seventh-graders about Islam, not indoctrinating them, in role-playing sessions in which students used Muslim names and recited language from prayers, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit by two Christian students and their parents, who accused the Byron Union School District of unconstitutionally endorsing a religious practice.
“The Islam program activities were not overt religious exercises that raise Establishment Clause concerns,” the three-judge panel said, referring to the First Amendment ban on government sanctioning a religion.
During the history course at Excelsior School in the fall of 2001, the teacher, using an instructional guide, told the students they would adopt roles as Muslims for three weeks to help them learn what Muslims believe.
She encouraged them to use Muslim names, recited prayers in class and made them give up something for a day, such as television or candy, to simulate fasting during Ramadan. The final exam asked students for a critique of elements of Muslim culture.
U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ruled in favor of the school district in 2003, saying that the class had an instructional purpose and that students had engaged in no actual religious exercises.
The appeals court upheld her ruling Thursday in a three-paragraph decision that was not published as a precedent for future cases, which generally is an indication that the court considers the legal issue to be clear from past rulings.
The court cited its 1994 ruling rejecting a suit by evangelical Christian parents in Woodland (Yolo County) who objected to elementary school children reading texts that contained tales and role-playing exercises about witches. In that case, the court said classroom activities related to the texts, which included casting a make-believe spell, were secular instruction rather than religious rituals.
The brevity of Thursday’s ruling “underscores the fact that what the district and its teachers did was entirely within the mainstream of educational practice,” said Linda Lye, attorney for the Byron schools.
Edward White of the Thomas More Center, the attorney in the case for the two children and their parents, said he will ask the full appeals court for a rehearing. He said the panel failed to address his argument that the district violated parents’ rights.
“What happened in this classroom was clearly an endorsement of religion and indoctrination of children in the Islamic religion, which would never have stood if it were a class on Christianity or Judaism,” White said.