The Curriculum Conundrum: Trying to Teach About Religion

Last week the United States Supreme Court rejected an appeal in Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308 (4th Cir. 2019), a case bought by Caleigh Wood challenging two portions of a 5-day unit in her world history class on Islam. Although Wood and her parents admitted that the unit on Islam was overall appropriate, they complained about a statement on a PowerPoint slide that “most Muslim’s [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian”, and a fill-in-the-blank exercise that required students to complete certain information (two blanks were at issue) regarding the “Five Pillars” of Islam. Wood contended that these portions of the exercise both endorsed Islam in violation of the Establishment Clause, and required her to engage in compelled speech, which violated her free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected both claims, largely because the Court felt that the assignment was overall appropriate, and did not require Wood to affirm any Islamic beliefs or reject her own Christian beliefs. The Court emphasized that you could not look at the two challenged provisions in a vacuum, and held that “if courts were to find an Establishment Clause violation every time that a student or parent thought that a single statement by a teacher either advanced or disapproved of a religion, instruction in our public schools would be reduced to the lowest common denominator’.” The Court also rejected the compelled speech claim, rationalizing that “[a]lthough a student’s right against compelled speech in a public school may be asserted under various circumstances, that right has limited application in a classroom setting in which a student is asked to study and discuss materials with which she disagrees.”

This has increasingly been an issue for public schools which are trying to teach about religion, and which are faced with complaints from one direction that they are not doing enough to teach about Christianity, and from the other (or the same again?) direction that they are doing too much when they try to teach about non-Christian religions.What bothers me as a school lawyer about this case is that the plaintiffs were represented by a special interest group (I know which one), so their monetary investment in the case was probably minimal, while the school district (and ultimately the tax payers) was forced to spend several hundred thousand dollars (my estimate) arguing over one statement in one slide, and two blanks in a worksheet. There may be more to this dispute (there often is), but the decision’s emphasis that courts should not dwell over individual statements from assignments that are otherwise appropriate will be useful to schools moving forward as they attempt to design increasingly complicated curriculum over sensitive topics like religion and politics.