The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on a profoundly significant case involving the religious rights of all Americans, and more specifically, the rights of our nation’s schoolchildren, which are safeguarded and secured by the all-important words contained in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The High Court declined to review an appeal submitted on behalf of a public high school student and a Christian, Caleigh Wood, who refused to compromise her religious beliefs by participating in a class assignment that was overtly anti-Christian in nature.
What conflicted with young Caleigh’s deeply held tenets of faith was a Muslim conversion prayer, which was part and parcel of the curricular assignment of a required course.
“There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” This statement happens to be the Islamic conversion creed, i.e., the declaration that an individual professes when converting to the Islam faith. It is also the prayer that a practicing Muslim recites during the Muslim “call to prayer” practice.
Caleigh had enrolled in the above described course because it was a mandatory requirement that had to be completed before she would be allowed to graduate from high school.
In an attempt to abide by the school’s conditions with regard to the academic coursework and still not violate her own personal religious conscience, Caleigh offered to complete an alternative assignment.
However, the school refused to provide her any options that were non-violative of her Christian beliefs, despite the fact that the educational institution could have easily done so. Instead Caleigh was informed that if she did not participate in the Islamic conversion prayer she would be given a failing grade.
The eleventh-grade student was additionally compelled to view pro-Islamic material in the form of PowerPoint slides. One of the slides contained the following caption: “Most Muslim’s [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian.” The lesson also included the following description regarding gender roles within the faith context: “Men are the managers of the affairs of women” and consequently “righteous women are therefore obedient.”
The approach taken within the class to the Christian faith stood in stark contrast with the one taken with regard to the Islamic faith. Islamic principles were presented under the auspices of “fact”; however, Christian principles were not afforded the same designation.
Regarding the comparison statement on strength of faith, Jack Tuttle, content specialist for the public schools in the county, testified that in his assessment the comparison reference was “inappropriate,” adding that he would have advised that it not be used in schools.
After Caleigh filed a lawsuit that pinpointed the violations of her Christian convictions, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judge in the case proceeded to ignore legal precedent, essentially sanctioning the promotion of the religion of Islam in public schools.
However, requiring a student to say a prayer, whether contrary or not to a student’s personally held beliefs, is a blatant violation of constitutional principles and precedents.
The U.S. Supreme Court should have weighed in on the Fourth Circuit’s decision. In failing to do so, the High Court permitted a lower court to ignore precedent as well as a citizen’s concerns about having to recite a prayer of a different faith, and additionally having to write such, which was a clear violation of religious conscience. The presence of government coercion in this case is patently clear, since the religious activities in question were part of a required course and no alternative accommodations were provided.
The Fourth Circuit’s opinion flies in the face of the legal mandate that public schools must not disparage a student’s faith and/or require students to engage in prayer or religious exercises contrary to personally held religious convictions. Public schools are constitutionally bound to remain neutral in their approach to faith-related subjects.
The Supreme Court has historically provided greater constitutional protection with regard to freedom of conscience as it pertains to the nation’s younger demographic. This is partially due to the fact that public school attendance is statutorily compelled, and the school administration wields considerable power.
To this end, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the opening of legislative sessions with prayer, yet declared unconstitutional the opening of school sessions with prayer. Similarly, the High Court has upheld the legality of creche and menorah displays, while noting that it would be a different result if the displays arose in a school setting.
The High Court precedent requires lower courts to apply a heightened standard for coercion in the public school context. Unfortunately, the Fourth Circuit egregiously cast this heightened standard aside.
The refusal by the U.S. Supreme Court to take up Caleigh’s case not only allows the lower court ruling to stand, but it leaves the existing double standard in place, which is likely to wreak further havoc on our cherished First Amendment.