Law & Courts

Justices Decline Case About Public School’s Islamic-Themed Unit

By Andrew Trotter — October 10, 2006 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to consider whether a California public school’s curriculum that directed 7th graders to pretend to be Muslims violated the constitutional rights of the children or their parents.

The court’s refusal without comment to hear the appeal—one of hundreds the justices disposed of on Oct. 2, the first day of their 2006-07 term—lets stand a lower-court ruling that the Islamic-themed activities were not “overt religious exercises” that infringed the rights of the family that sued.

Separately, the court announced that it would hear oral arguments on Dec. 4 in two highly anticipated cases already accepted for review—about whether the Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., school districts may consider race in assigning students to schools. The court will hear a total of two hours of arguments, one each for Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (Case No. 05-908) and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (No. 05-915). (“Diversity on the Docket,” Oct. 4, 2006.)

In the case involving a school’s unit on Islam, the appeal by Jonas and Tiffany Ecklund for themselves and their children, Chase and Samantha, was being watched closely by religious and school organizations, which often cross swords over the way the public schools handle religion.

In the fall of 2001, Chase Ecklund, then in 7th grade at Excelsior Middle School, in Byron, Calif., took a world-history class that had a unit on Islam that included an activity that lasted 3 weeks in which students simulated Islamic history and culture through role-playing and competition, according to court papers.

The 7th graders were put into groups named after six cities in the Islamic world. Students could choose to wear Arabic costume, and each group pretended to make a pilgrimage, or hajj, from its city to Mecca, the holy city in Saudi Arabia, learning Islamic geography, history, and culture along the way.

Chase and his parents objected to handouts that encouraged students to “become Muslim,” the simulated hajj, and make-believe fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. They objected to the fact that Chase was asked to choose a Muslim name and earned points by using Muslim religious phrases, such as one meaning “God is great.”

Simulated Culture

Suing the 1,475-student Byron district, the Eklunds alleged that the unit on Islam violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion, as well as their right to direct the upbringing of their children.

Overt Religion?

A federal district court in San Francisco found no violation of the establishment clause, in part because Chase and his parents did not try to opt out of the unit, according to court papers. The ability to opt out, permitted by district policy, removed any coercion upon Chase to take part in an allegedly religious activity, the court ruled.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, held that the Islam-unit activities were not “overt religious exercises” in violation of the establishment clause.

But the Ecklunds, appealing to the Supreme Court, argued that the unit was in fact a religious activity, and that the opt-out provision did not eliminate the coercion on their son to take part, because the parents did not know about it until after Chase took the unit.

The Mountain States Legal Foundation, in a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Ecklunds, told the high court that “Islam is a religion; it is not a racial or cultural group such as ‘Arab’ or ‘Persian.’ ”

But the California School Boards Association and the National School Boards Association, in a friend-of-the-court brief on the school district’s side, argued that a ruling against the district would discourage schools from addressing religion in the curriculum. Teachers need assurance that they will not be sued for teaching about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and other speeches with religious content; or literature with religious references and themes, the groups’ brief said.

The high court’s denial of the appeal in Ecklund v. Byron Union School District (No. 05-1539) allows the Byron district to continue offering the unit on Islam.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as Justices Decline Case About Public School’s Islamic-Themed Unit

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