Teaching or converting? NJ schools’ Islam lessons challenged
A mother in Morris County says a middle school social studies class tried to convert her son to Islam.
In a federal lawsuit filed Jan. 23, Libby Hilsenrath says the Chatham Middle School "assailed" her child's First Amendment rights "by forcing children to endure the promotion of Islam in their public schools, including an explicit and direct call to the children for conversion to the religion of Islam."
The lawsuit was filed by the Thomas More Law Center, an organization that is critical of Islam and claims a conspiracy by "Radical Muslims and Islamic organizations in America" who they say have "already infiltrated the highest levels of our government, the media, our military, both major political parties, public schools, universities, financial institutions and the cultural elite."
In a news release, the center said students were "given a sugarcoated, false depiction of Islam," and added that "they were not informed of the kidnappings, beheadings, salve-trading, massacres, and persecution of non-Muslims, nor the repression of women — all done in the name of Islam."
The district has denied the allegations. District officials have said the the religious curriculum neither promotes nor denigrates any particular religion.
In response to questions about the curriculum last year, the district's supervisor of social studies delivered a nearly 30-minute presentation about the religious curriculum that received a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 100 people at a Board of Education meeting.
Hilsenrath claims that during the 2016-17 school year, her child was a seventh grader at the school and was taking a World Cultures and Geography class that included a Middle East and North Africa unit using Google Classroom for online learning. The lawsuit claims that "under the coercive threat of lower grades and failed assignments," students were required to review all materials posted online.
Hilsenrath's lawsuit says among the items for students to watch were an Introduction to Islam video and another video about the pillars of Islam. The lawsuit calls the first video a "conversion video" that is "proselytizing ... unqualified, religious 'facts.'" These facts, according to the lawsuit, included:
- "Allah is the one God . . . ."
- "[Allah] has no equal and is all powerful[.]"
- "The Noble Quran [is] Guidance, Mercy and Blessing for all mankind [.]"
The lawsuit claims that the video is "replete with biased, chastising statements encouraging the students at Chatham Middle School ... to follow the Quran and become Muslims." It also cites the final slide of the video, which it says is "a direct and explicit call for the children to convert to Islam." The picture says "May God help us all find the true faith, Islam."
The video, according to the lawsuit, is set to a musical version of a poem called "Qaseedah Burdah", which it says encourages the slaughtering of "infidels."
"Due to the fact that these doctrinal messages calling for conversion to Islam were included in video format with vivid images and text, they possess greater communicative impact and are more likely to be accepted by the students viewing them than information that is spoken in a classroom or even written in a book," the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit also complains that the videos are shown without any disclaimer from the district that the views are not those of the school, and that students were asked to fill out a work sheet that included the "Islamic conversion creed and prayer."
Hilsenrath claimed she had reached out to the district and the Board of Education with her concerns.
The questions, according to the lawsuit, were addressed at a Board of Education meeting on March 6, 2017, by Steven Maher, the district's supervisor of social studies.
Maher said state law mandates that students learn about the tenets of all major religions.
"One of the things we have to make sure is that the teaching is objective, it's academic, its not devotional," he said during the presentation, which was recorded and shared online.
Middle school and high school students learn about religions in order to understand cultural, political and historical movements around the world. The curriculum includes reading religious texts such as the Bible.
Maher said the curriculum is based on a guide endorsed by a long list of religious and educational groups, including the American Jewish Congress, the Islamic Society of North America, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Mormon church.
"We are providing students with awareness of religion, not acceptance. This is a study about religion, not the practice of religion," Maher added. "Students know they are learning about religion. They know they are not practicing religion."
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Board Attorney Matthew J. Giacobbe said Monday the district "has no comment on the pending litigation other than to state that it denies the allegations contained in the complaint and will vigorously defend" against the allegations.
Hilsenrath's lawsuit, however, points out that the videos in question were not shown during that meeting, nor were they mentioned during the discussion and were "purposely excluded."
In February 2017, Superintendent Michael LaSousa included a section in his newsletter about "Teaching about Religion in Our Curriculum." In the newsletter, LaSousa said teachers in the district cover a variety of religious topics ranging from traditions associated with Christmas, Hanukkah, and Diwali to the the split with the Church of England and the Holocaust.
"We all — me included — can be better teachers," he said in the newsletter. "Central to our mission as educators is to help students develop understandings of themselves, others, and the world around them — something achievable only through deliberate work with material and topics previously unfamiliar to students."
Hilsenrath is represented by Thomas More Law Center attorney Michael P. Hrycak.