Lessons on Muslims called indoctrination

2 students, parents appeal ruling by federal judge

A lawyer for two Christian seventh-graders and their parents struggled Wednesday to convince federal appeals court judges that a Contra Costa County school district was indoctrinating children in Islam during a role-playing exercise that called for students to adopt Muslim names and recite language from prayers.

“The children were supposed to become Muslims. They were acting as a Muslim would act,” attorney Edward White of the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian defense organization, told a panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

His clients are appealing a ruling by a federal judge, who said in 2003 that the school district was merely teaching seventh-graders about Islam in a history class, not indoctrinating them.

Teaching young students about Islam is unobjectionable, White told the panel Wednesday, but some of the activities at Excelsior School in Byron in the fall of 2001, as seen through the eyes of vulnerable students, crossed the line into an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. He cited the directive that students wear name tags with religious symbols, a classroom display of a student-made banner that praised Allah, and a requirement that students memorize and recite a passage from the Quran.

A lawyer for the Byron Union School District countered that the teacher and school officials — none of them Muslims — were trying only to instruct the youngsters about history and culture in an enjoyable way. “There was nothing sacred or worshipful about any of the activities,” said attorney Linda Lye.

The three-judge panel seemed to agree.

“You would deny our children the history of the world and all the great religions,” Judge Dorothy Nelson told White. She said the role-playing was designed “to make the historical lesson come alive.”

Judge Johnnie Rawlinson said the case seemed similar to an earlier suit by evangelical Christian parents in Woodland challenging elementary school reading textbooks that contained tales and role-playing exercises about witches. The appeals court ruled in 1994 that classroom activities related to the texts, which included casting a make-believe spell, were secular instruction rather than religious rituals.

White replied that the Byron school’s role-playing was clearly religious, as opposed to the “secular fantasy” in the witchcraft case. But Judge Carlos Bea said religious witches consider their ceremonies sacred, not secular.

The case is one of a series of legal disputes that have arisen in recent years over religion in the classroom, including challenges to the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in a Pennsylvania district’s science classes.

The Byron case also touches on the sensitive subject of the treatment of Muslims since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. One of the two children who objected to the schools’ exercises, Chase Eklund, said in an out-of-court deposition that he felt uncomfortable “practicing the Islam stuff” and that “it felt weird doing it after the 9/11 thing.”

During the course at the middle school, the teacher, using an instructional guide, told the students that 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 the month of Ramadan. The final exam asked students for a critique of elements of Muslim culture.

Lye, the school district’s lawyer, said students who were asked to recite a line from a religious text did not kneel on prayer rugs or do anything else to suggest a solemn occasion. She also noted that the course included a unit on medieval Europe in which some students dressed as priests.

Chase Eklund, despite his discomfort, recognized that “the simulation was just a simulation and he did not become a Muslim,” Lye said. If the role-playing in this case was constitutionally forbidden, she said, “school choirs would never be able to sing a song that had words of religious significance.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Oct. 20, 2005
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday October 20, 2005.
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