Curriculum

Judge Backs Portrayal of Hinduism, but Voids Texts’ Process

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 12, 2006 3 min read
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A superior-court judge in California last week denied a religious organization’s claims that history texts adopted for use in the state’s middle schools portray Hinduism inaccurately or negatively. But the ruling sent the state school board back to the drawing board to rewrite textbook-adoption regulations that the court concluded have been invalid for more than a decade.

The books in question will remain in classrooms, but the court has yet to give the state a deadline for revising the policy. It is not clear whether other textbooks adopted under the regulations—which were invalidated in 1995—could be open to their own challenges. Current adoptions, however, will be conducted according to the regulations now in question, the judge ruled.

The Hindu American Foundation, which filed the lawsuit against the state board in March, was pleased that the judge agreed “that the process in adopting the textbooks was flawed and illegal,” the foundation’s lawyer, Suhag Shukla, said in a statement. She said the judge’s rejection of concerns about the content was “very disappointing.”

“The court found a positive result for books now used by 450,000 students,” said Todd M. Smith, the deputy general counsel to the California education department. “While we have to go back and revise the policy, we’re pleased that at least the textbooks were upheld.”

The suit came about after two other Hindu organizations had spent months wrangling with state officials over changes they proposed to the texts’ descriptions of ancient India.

The Hindu Education Foundation, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Vedic Foundation, in Austin, Texas, requested more than 500 revisions to the textbooks. The groups argued that Hinduism is largely presented in a negative light and, in some cases, inaccurately, violating the state’s prohibition on content that “adversely affects” racial, religious, or ethnic groups.

The groups, for example, wanted references to the caste system removed, saying the discriminatory social-classification structure was not associated with the religion, as the texts imply. (“Calif. Texts Tied Up in Debate Over Portrayal of Hinduism,” Feb. 8, 2006.)

‘Dispassionate and Neutral’

But Judge Patrick Marlette found those arguments “unpersuasive” and concluded that the textbooks are “dispassionate and neutral” in regard to religion, and objectively describe Hinduism and its history.

“Nothing in the applicable standards requires textbook writers to ignore a historical reality of such significant dimension [as the caste system], even if studying it might engender certain negative reactions to students,” Judge Marlette wrote in the Sept. 6 opinion. “Indeed, it appears to the court that to omit treatment of the caste system from the teaching of ancient Indian history would itself be grossly inaccurate.”

The judge noted that state officials had adopted many of the factual changes the groups asked for, though in a revised form.

Other changes, however, were rejected after a special committee met with scholars who claimed the revisions were incorrect. Those meetings were held in private.

The judge did not rule on whether the meetings may have skirted mandatory state procedures. The state board followed regulations that have guided the textbook-adoption process since the early 1990s. Those regulations should have expired in 1995, the judge ruled, and been replaced with others that adhere to the state’s current procedural requirements for such decisions. The requirements include guidelines for public participation in policy-making.

The Hindu groups have complained that their exclusion from those meetings prevented them from challenging the scholars’ views and making their case.

“We feel that if the state board had been following [the required] guidelines, the outcome would have been very, very different,” said Janeshwari Devi, a spokeswoman for the Vedic Foundation.

Governor Vetoes Bill

On another highly charged issue for California schools, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week vetoed legislation that would have expanded a clause in the state education code that prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, color, creed, handicap, national origin, or ancestry to include “gender” and “sexual orientation.”

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, a Democrat, originally would have required textbooks to include information on the roles and contributions of gay people throughout history.

In his veto message, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, called the measure “confusing” and argued that the law already protects gay and lesbian students.

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Judge Backs Portrayal of Hinduism, But Voids Texts’ Process

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