Washington • As a high school junior, Caleigh Wood refused to complete a history lesson on “The Muslim World” that she said forced her to embrace Islam in conflict with her Christian faith — and the Constitution.
A federal appeals court this week disagreed, saying school officials in Southern Maryland had not violated Wood's First Amendment rights because the curriculum did not endorse a particular religion "and did not compel Wood to profess any belief."
"School authorities, not the courts, are charged with the responsibility of deciding what speech is appropriate in the classroom," wrote Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, who was joined by Judges Pamela Harris and James Wynn. "Academic freedom would not long survive in an environment in which courts micromanage school curricula and parse singular statements made by teachers."
Attorney Andrew Scott, who represents Charles County school officials, said Tuesday the ruling sends an important message to school officials throughout the state affirming their discretion to teach about religion.
"Religion is an integral part of history. You can't ignore it," said Scott, who argued the case at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. "The key is to teach it from a secular perspective — and not to proselytize."
Wood's attorney, Richard Thompson, said he would seek review of the three-judge-panel ruling by either the fullRichmond, Virginia-based appeals court or the Supreme Court.
The school's lesson clearly endorsed Islam, denigrated Christianity and amounted to "forced speech of a young Christian girl," said Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, a national Christian nonprofit law firm. "This is unequal treatment of Christianity by the school system."
The Maryland case is the latest chapter in an ongoing nationwide debate about how to teach about religion in public schools.
The lesson in dispute lasted five days in a year-long course when Wood was in 11th grade at La Plata High School, about 35 miles south of here, in 2014-2015. Wood and her parents objected to two aspects of the unit that touched on politics, geography and culture. One was a slide contrasting "peaceful Islam" with "radical fundamental Islam" that included the statement: "Most Muslim's [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian."
Wood was also required to complete a work sheet on the growth of Islam, the "beliefs and practices," and the links between Islam, Judaism and Christianity. A fill-in-the-blank section included the statement "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah," a portion of an Islamic declaration of faith known as the shahada.
Wood's father, John, demanded his daughter be given a different assignment and told her to refuse to complete any work associated with Islam that "violated [her] Christian beliefs," according to court records.
Wood received a lower grade for the lesson, but it did not affect her final grade, filings show.
Her parents went to court. The materials, they argued, lacked any secular purpose and had the "effect of promoting and endorsing Islam."
Woods, now 20, graduated in 2016, as her case continued to work its way through the courts.
The establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government — in this case public school officials — from advancing or inhibiting a particular religion.
In its ruling, the court considered the school's broad world history curriculum rather than examining each potentially problematic statement. If judges found violations "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,' " Keenan wrote in her 18-page opinion.
The assignment involving the shahada, the court found, was meant to assess whether students understood the "beliefs and practices" of Muslims. The task was factual, and students "were not required to memorize the shahada, to recite it, or even to write the complete statement of faith," according to the ruling.
"This is precisely the sort of academic exercise that the Supreme Court has indicated would not run afoul of the Establishment Clause," it said.
The court's opinion noted that the school's content specialist had testified that the language included in the slide about the strength of the Muslim faith relative to Christianity was "inappropriate" and that he would have advised the teacher not to include it in the lesson.
Still the court found the slide did not advocate a particular belief system and was relevant to the overall secular lessons being taught.
The slide is no longer used in the school's curriculum, a spokeswoman said, and social studies teachers have been trained about "proper resources that meet the standards Maryland requires for the course."
"We don't teach religion. What we are teaching is world history," Charles County Schools Superintendent Kimberly Hill said after the ruling. "This is one unit. It isn't any kind of indoctrination for anyone."
Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum in Washington, said the conflation of Islam with terrorism, and the rise of Islamophobia has created a particular "fear and suspicion of how Islam is being treated in public schools."
An assignment or presentation may be poorly phrased, but it does not rise to the level of being unconstitutional unless it's part of a clear pattern, said Haynes, who has led efforts to create guidelines for teaching religion in public schools.
Courts, he said, are reluctant to “get in there to judge every statement” and generally defer to educators rather than “second-guess every little thing or entangle the courts endlessly in the curriculum.”