A group of parents in California is suing a local public school district where at least one middle school, after September 11, encouraged students to wear Muslim robes, adopt Islamic names and stage make-believe pilgrimages to Mecca to learn about the faith.
The lawsuit, filed recently in federal court in San Francisco, contends that the simulation exercises that took place at the Excelsior School in the Byron Union School District near Oakland violated the students’ First Amendment rights.
Specifically, the lawsuit seeks to have the court find that the school district violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by using taxpayer dollars to teach students how to practice a religion. The suit also asked the court to prohibit the district from funding and implementing simulations of Islam.
“This is unbelievable,” said Richard Thompson, chief counsel and executive director of the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan, a national public interest law firm representing the parents and their children.
“While public schools prohibit Christian students from reading the Bible, praying, displaying the Ten Commandments and even mentioning the word ‘God,’ students in California are being indoctrinated into the religion of Islam.”
Peggy Green, superintendent of the Byron Union School District, said yesterday that her district has not yet been served with the lawsuit. She added, however, that the Excelsior School was not teaching Islam in any way.
“We are not teaching religion,” she said. “We’re teaching world history. We teach about all major religions, and this unit in question was just one of many. The allegations in the lawsuit don’t accurately reflect what was going on in the classroom.”
The course on Islam is one of 11 units of a social studies class called World History and Geography: Medieval and Early Modern Times that is being taught all over the state. The class is included in the state’s curriculum standards, which were approved by state officials in 1998.
According to the lawsuit, about 125 students dressed up in Muslim robes, studied Islamic proverbs and read verses from the Koran to earn points toward their overall grade. It said the students were required to say phrases such as “Allah Akbar,” which is Arabic for “God is great,” and memorize Muslim prayers, fulfill the Five Pillars of Islam and fast during lunch to simulate the fasting done during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“From the beginning, you and your classmates will become Muslims,” the handout read. “Dressing as a Muslim and trying to be involved will increase your learning and enjoyment.”
The students also had to pick a Muslim name out of a list of 30 to replace their name and had to organize a mock hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca using a dice game.
Mrs. Green said each of the students picked an Islamic name, but none was ever addressed by it in class. She also said the students were not required to memorize any verses from the Koran and never prayed to Allah or recited the phrase “Allah Akbar.” The students learned about the Five Pillars of Islam, she said, only because the state of California mandates that all seventh-graders learn them.
She also said the students could dress up in Muslim robes to earn extra points for a play they were asked to put on. For bonus points, students also could give up watching television or could fast at lunch during Ramadan.
“These children always had a choice,” she said. “There was no coercion and no insistence that they do any of these activities if they didn’t want to.”
Mr. Thompson disagreed. “The Byron Union School District crossed way over the constitutional line when it coerced impressionable 12-year-olds to engage in particular religious rituals and worship, simulated or not,” he said.
Parents didn’t know their children were being encouraged to participate in such a program, Mr. Thompson said. “Parents with children in this course were totally caught off guard and had no idea what their children were being taught.”
Mrs. Green said the state requires all school districts to notify parents about what’s coming up in their children’s classes. She also said that all parents in the Excelsior class had the option to pull their children out if they felt uncomfortable with the material.
At the beginning of the school year last fall, Excelsior school officials sent home a copy of the textbook used for the Islam section so parents would know what would be taught.
“All the parents would have to do is pick up the book and see what their children are learning,” she said.
Two families did choose to keep their children out, Mrs. Green said. These families are not the ones suing the school district.