Law & Courts

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

By Andrew Trotter — October 10, 2006 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Families Sue Rhode Island's Governor to Overturn His School Mask Mandate
The families say mask-wearing threatens to cause serious and long-lasting damage on their children's physical and emotional well-being.
Linda Borg, The Providence Journal
2 min read
Students line up to have their temperature taken as they return for the first time as their school, The Learning Community, reopens to in-person learning after it closed for the pandemic a year ago, in Central Falls, R.I., on March 29, 2021.
Students line up to have their temperature taken as they return for the first time as their school, The Learning Community, reopens to in-person learning after it closed for the pandemic a year ago, in Central Falls, R.I., on March 29, 2021.
David Goldman/AP
Law & Courts Federal Judge Denies Parents' Suit to Block Florida's Ban on School Mask Mandates
The parents argued that their children, due to health conditions, were at particular risk if any of their peers attend school without masks.
David Goodhue, Miami Herald
3 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.
Marta Lavandier/AP
Law & Courts Texas Attorney General Sues More School Districts That Require Masks
The Texas attorney general's office anticipates filing more lawsuits against districts flouting the governor’s order. Will Dallas be next?
Talia Richman, The Dallas Morning News
4 min read
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP
Law & Courts Can They Do That? Questions Swirl Around COVID-19 School Vaccine Mandates
With at least one large school district adopting a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, here is a look at the legal landscape for such a requirement.
5 min read
Image of a band-aid being placed on the arm.
iStock/Getty