Appeals Court Finds No Disparagement of Hinduism in Calif. Curricular Framework

By Mark Walsh — September 03, 2020 3 min read
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A federal appeals court on Thursday turned aside a challenge to California’s history and social science content standards and curriculum framework from a group that contends the materials disparage Hinduism while favoring Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

“We do not doubt the sincerity of appellants’ challenge to the standards and framework,” said a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco. “But even if isolated passages could be read as implying some hostility toward religion—which they do not—they would not violate the establishment clause unless that were the principal or primary effect. The Standards and Framework reflect careful crafting by the State Board [of Education] to achieve a balanced portrayal of different world religions.”

The decision in California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials v. Torlakson comes in a lawsuit filed against state officials by the Fremont, Calif.-based group known as CAPEEM and several individual parents and students. The group had unsuccessfully sued in 2006 raising similar claims that California textbooks disparaged Hinduism.

The state adopted its broad history and social science standard in 1998 and a more-detailed framework in 2016. The framework calls for students to analyze ancient civilizations from a social science perspective, with materials to include “the birth and spread of religious and philosophical systems,” among other things, the 9th Circuit court said.

CAPEEM’s lawsuit claims that the standards and framework do not describe the divine origins of Hinduism or discuss the sacred texts of the religion, while they do describe the divine origins of the other major religions.

The suit objects to the state materials’ characterization of one of Hinduism’s sacred texts, the Bhagavad Gita, as an important piece of literature in Ancient India and a phrase that describes Hinduism as a “culture that emerged as a belief system.” The suit argues that these are secular descriptions of Hinduism that are disparaging when read alongside the descriptions of other religions covered by the education materials.

CAPEEM and the other plaintiffs sued in federal district court, challenging the standards and framework under the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses and the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. The district court dismissed most of the claims in 2017 and later issued a summary judgment for the state on the equal protection claim.

The 9th Circuit court affirmed the district court on all of the claims. The panel agreed that the equal protection challenge to the state’s curriculum decisions was foreclosed by a 1998 decision by the 9th Circuit, in Monteiro v. Tempe Union School District, that had rejected a parent’s challenge to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” because those works used racially derogatory terms.

“Our opinion in Monteiro held that objections to curriculum assignments cannot form the basis of a viable equal protection claim, because curriculum decisions must remain the province of school authorities,” the 9th Circuit panel said in the new decision.

The panel fairly quickly disposed of the suit’s free exercise and due process claims. The suit’s establishment clause claim contends that the state materials impermissibly endorse Christianity, Judaism, and Islam while disparaging Hinduism. The appellate panel disagreed.

The panel said the district court was correct to exclude a report from the plaintiff’s expert, who concluded that the state’s 1998 standards contained outdated, offensive, and disparaging information about Hinduism.

“We must evaluate the standards and framework from the perspective of an objective, reasonable observer, and not that of an academic who is an expert in the field,” the court said. It concluded that the state materials did not call for the teaching of biblical events and figures as fact, and thus they did not implicitly endorse other religions.

“We also conclude, as did the district court, that none of appellants’ characterizations of the Hinduism materials as disparaging is supported by an objective reading of those materials,” the court said.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

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