Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rules school system did not violate student’s rights

A copy of Caleigh Wood’s school assignment from 2014, provided by Charles County Public Schools, shows that students were asked about the roles, responsibilities and rights of women in Muslim society. The answers, however, could be completely open-ended.

Charles County Public Schools announced Thursday that a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled the school system did not violate a student’s First Amendment rights in a world history class lesson dating back to 2014 at La Plata High School, which included instruction on Islam.

The suit alleged that in October 2014, Caleigh Wood, then a junior at La Plata High School, was being “indoctrinated” into Islam through instruction in her world history class on the statement of faith and the five pillars of Islamic teaching. The Thomas More Law Center, a conservative Christian law firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., filed suit in federal district court on behalf of Wood’s parents, La Plata couple Kevin and Melissa Wood.

The suit also challenged a no trespass order issued against Wood’s father banning him from the La Plata campus after his request for an alternative assignment for his daughter was denied. Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel for the Thomas More Law Center, said his client was “outraged that his daughter was being taught false information on Islam,” and would “receive a failing grade if she did not complete the assignment.”

According to a press release from Charles County Public Schools, one lesson contained a comparative Powerpoint slide titled “Islam Today,” which contrasted “peaceful Islam” with “radical fundamental Islam.” The lesson also included a fill-in-the-blank worksheet, asking students to complete information on the “Five Pillars” of Islam.

Kevin Wood objected to the lessons, claiming they violated his daughter’s Christian beliefs. He told his daughter to refuse to complete the assignment, the press release noted.

“School authorities, not the courts, are charged with the responsibility of deciding what speech is appropriate in the classroom,” according to a note written by Appeals Court Judge Barbara Keenan who, along with fellow judges James Wynn and Pamela Harris, made up the three-judge panel that found the assignments did not advance any particular religion and was introduced for a genuine secular purpose. “Although schools are not ‘immune from the sweep of the First Amendment,’ academic freedom is itself a concern of that amendment. Such academic freedom would not long survive in an environment in which courts micromanage school curricula and parse singular statements made by teachers.”

“A reasonable observer, aware of the world history curriculum being taught, would not view the challenged materials as communicating a message of endorsement,” Keenan said.

The Maryland standards state students are required to “compare the fundamental teachings, practices, and divisions found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism” and “compare the impact of religion on political affairs.” Sections cover the formation and development of a number of different religions, including Hinduism, Daoism, Islam and Christianity in the context of their belief systems and impact on world history, according to school system spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson.

“We don’t teach religion,” O’Malley-Simpson told the Maryland Independent in February 2016. “We teach about religion’s impact on the rise and fall of nations.”

Thompson said his clients, who are Christian, feel the instruction on Islam amounts to “propaganda.”

“The general point is that there’s nothing wrong in teaching about other religions, whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism,” Thompson said. “The question is when you cross the line between giving an objective, accurate account of presenting a religion and go into proselytizing a religion.”

“Our schools play an important role in ensuring that our children are provided with information that best prepares them to understand and thrive in a society with many different cultural and religious viewpoints,” school system Superintendent Kimberly Hill said in the press release. “We present a curriculum with that goal in mind. We are pleased that the Fourth Circuit agreed with us that there was no violation of any student’s rights.”

The Maryland Independent reported in 2014 that Kevin Wood, a former corporal with the U.S. Marine Corps who identified himself as Catholic, said that he did not wish for his daughter to learn the Islamic religion as it is a faith he does “not believe in.” He denied that he had issued any threats or planned to show up on the La Plata campus.

“If [students] can’t practice Christianity in school, they should not be allowed to practice Islam in school,” Kevin Wood said.

The Thomas More Law Center has also filed a lawsuit on the Woods’ behalf regarding a no trespass order issued to Kevin Wood.

In an October 2014 interview with the Maryland Independent, Kevin Wood said he instructed a La Plata school official to take the “Muslim-loving” assignment and shove it up her “white [expletive].” He promised to contact media and “bring a [expletive] storm down on them like they’ve never seen,” prior to the no trespass order being issued.

A school resource officer at La Plata informed Kevin Wood by phone that he was not allowed on school property.

“Nowhere did he ever threaten,” Melissa Wood said at the time. “And this is where it’s gotten totally blown out of proportion.”

Thompson argued that the no trespass order not only prevented Wood’s father from being actively involved in her education, but also attending Parent-Teacher Organization meetings which Thompson said silenced his free speech rights, according to the lawsuit.

The school system has maintained that multiple religions, not just Islam, but also Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism, are highlighted in courses, but solely through a historical lens. School officials have stated the curriculum, though developed and written locally, is one that matches long-existing standards set by the state of Maryland.

Students are required to pass world history as a graduation requirement. A piece of the world history course involves studying Middle Eastern culture and the formation of its empires — the Maryland State Board of Education has dictated that Middle East be part of the curriculum for many years, according to O’Malley-Simpson.

Students must also enroll in government and U.S. history. Policies exist that allow a child to complete an alternative assignment if the parents complain, O’Malley-Simpson said, but not in the case of world history.

“If parents object to a book that’s assigned, and the assignment is to gather certain reading skills, assigning them a different book doesn’t matter,” said O’Malley-Simpson. “The student still gains the skills and knowledge. In the case of world history and other subjects, it’s part of the curriculum and it’s part of the standards you’re supposed to learn.”

Board of education member Jennifer Abell took to Facebook, saying “misinformation” had been circulated about the no-trespass order.

“Charles County Public Schools social studies curriculum adheres to the Maryland World History curricular standards that are a requirement for all counties in the state. These standards include an analysis of the elements of culture such as art, music, religion, government, social structure, education, beliefs and customs in societies throughout history,” Abell said in a 2014 Facebook post. “Regarding the study of history specifically, the standards also state that students should be able to analyze the customs and beliefs of world religions and their expansion, as well as how their establishment has impacted other areas of culture, and in certain times and regions, even caused conflict.”

Melissa Wood called Abell’s full post, which included a line about “ensuring the safety of students and staff of the school,” a “smear” against her husband.

In October of 2014, school system officials informed the Wood family that any individual assignment their daughter missed would receive an F, as no alternative assignments are offered to students. A copy of the school assignment provided by the school system shows that students were asked about the roles, responsibilities and rights of women in Muslim society, but the answers could be completely open-ended.

The school system had scheduled a meeting with the Woods later that year in November, but was canceled after the Thomas More Law Center sent them a mailed notice stating Charles County Public Schools was to cease all contact with the family and refer all correspondence to the center’s attorneys.

Erin Mersino, who was the senior trial counsel at the time, confirmed that the center had requested Nov. 19 records via U.S. Postal Service mail and email pertaining to the Woods’ case under Maryland’s Public Information Act.

“We stand in defense of America’s Christian background and in favor of a strong national defense,” Thompson said.

According to Charles County Public Schools, the social studies curriculum adheres to the Maryland world history curricular standards that are a requirement for all counties in the state. Regarding the study of history specifically, the standards also state that students should be able to analyze the customs and beliefs of world religions and their expansion, as well as how their establishment has impacted other areas of culture, and in certain times and regions, even caused conflict.

The unit referenced in the lawsuit is on the formation of Middle Eastern empires in which students learned the basic concepts of the Islamic faith and how it, along with politics, culture, economics and geography, contributed to the development of the Middle East.

School system officials announced Thursday that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the Woods’ claim alleging the assignments promoted and endorsed Islam. Rather, the challenged materials constituted a small part of the school’s world history curriculum, according to the press release.

“We are pleased with the court’s opinion and believe it rightfully affirms the ability of public school educators to teach students about the role religion has had on world history without violating the First Amendment,” said Andrew Scott, an attorney who represented Charles County Public Schools and several of its administrators. “We also believe the court’s ruling properly affirms the ability of public school educators to require students to complete assignments with which they may have personal disagreements as long as those assignments are reasonably related to a legitimate educational purpose.”

The Thomas More Law Center is a nonprofit organization that is run entirely on donations, and does not charge clients whose cases it decides to take up. Its mission, according to the website, is to “preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage; defend the religious freedom of Christians; restore time-honored moral and family values; protect the sanctity of human life; promote a strong national defense and a free and sovereign United States of America.”

The Fourth Circuit opinion affirms an earlier ruling by a judge with the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland who granted summary judgment in favor of several of CCPS employees. The Woods appealed that decision, according to the school system’s press release.

Twitter: @JClink_MdINDY