Hilsenrath ex rel. C.H. v. Sch. Dist. of the Chathams

Decision Date12 November 2020
Docket NumberCiv. No. 18-00966 (KM) (MAH)
Parties Libby HILSENRATH, ON BEHALF OF her minor child, C.H., Plaintiff, v. SCHOOL DISTRICT OF the CHATHAMS, Board of Education of the School District of the Chathams, Michael LaSusa, Karen Chase, Jill Gihorski, Steven Maher, Megan Keown, and Christine Jakowski, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey

Michael P. Hrycak, Westfield, NJ, for Plaintiff.

Anthony P. Seijas, Ruby Kumar-Thompson, Cleary, Giocobbe, Alfieri, & Jacobs, LLC, Oakland, NJ, for Defendants.

KEVIN MCNULTY, United States District Judge:

This case is an Establishment Clause challenge by Libby Hilsenrath, on behalf of her son C.H., to instruction about Islam in C.H.’s seventh-grade world cultures course. Before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. The motions raise certain threshold or technical issues of standing, arising from the passage of time and the school's voluntary withdrawal of certain of the curriculum materials, and also join issue on the merits. For the following reasons, Defendantsmotion for summary judgment (DE 62) is GRANTED , and Hilsenrath's motion for summary judgment (DE 63) is DENIED .1

This well-framed case presented sensitive issues requiring factual inquiry and the balancing of multiple factors. No one's educational, ideological, or religious priors were sufficient to decide it. I understand well the strong feelings that accompany such issues and claims. I do not dismiss the plaintiff's concerns, and I am by no means unsympathetic with parents’ desire to control their children's exposure to religious indoctrination. I am also acutely aware that this is public, not parochial, education. Religion, however, is a fact about the world, and no study of geography and cultures is complete without it. There is, to be sure, a line to be drawn between teaching about religion and teaching religion. On this record, I must conclude that the school did not cross that line.

A. Facts
1. The World Cultures and Geography Course

During the 20162017 school year, C.H. was a seventh-grade student at Chatham Middle School, in the School District of the Chathams. He was enrolled in a mandatory course called World Cultures and Geography, taught by defendants Megan Keown and Christine Jakowski. (Def. SMF ¶¶ 96–98, 125.)2 The aim of the course was to "develop[ ] a broad understanding of the world and its people" so that "students will become active and informed global citizens." (DE 62-36, at 1.) To that end, the course devoted a unit of study to each of the world's major regions. (Id. ) In learning about those regions, students learned about the religions commonly practiced in each and compared the religions. (See, e.g. , id. ; DE 62-39.)

One unit was devoted to the Middle East and North Africa ("MENA"); and students learned about Islam, the prevalent religion in that region. (DE 62-41.) There were nine lessons as part of this unit (mostly on geography and current events), but Islam was only the focus of two. (Id. )

i. Introduction to Islam Video

The first lesson was aimed at teaching students about generalizations through the lens of generalizations about Islam. (Id. at 2.) Ms. Jakowski presented a PowerPoint, and a copy was posted on Google Classroom, an online platform for teachers to provide students with access to course materials. (Jakowski Dep. at 29:8–18.) The last slide asked students to write down words they associated with Islam, watch a linked video introducing students to Islam ("Video 1"), and then discuss what generalizations they could make after watching the video and whether those generalizations were valid. (DE 62-42, at 10.) However, Ms. Jakowski did not play Video 1 in class and students were not required to watch it as homework. (Jakowski Dep. at 30:21–31:1, 36:4–6, 45:11–19.) Nonetheless, C.H., with his mother, did access the presentation and Video 1 from Google Classroom and watched at home. (C.H. Dep. at 35:23–36:9.)3

Video 1 is a five-minute introduction to Islam. The video scrolls through pictures of Middle Eastern and North African peoples, Islamic art, and Muslim sites, with singing in the background.4 Interspersed with these images for the first half of the video are slides of text asking and answering questions about Islam:

"What is Islam? ... Faith of divine guidance for Humanity, based on peace, spirituality and the oneness of God[.]" (Video 1 at 0:17.)
"Who is Allah? Allah is the one God who created the heavens and the earth, who has no equal and is all powerful[.]" (Id. at 0:29.)
"Who is Muhammed (S)? Muhammed (Peace be upon him) is the last & final Messenger of God, God gave him the Noble Quran[.]" (Id. at 1:01.)
"What is the Noble Quran? Divine revelation sent to Muhammed (S) last Prophet of Allah. A Perfect guide for Humanity[.]" (Id. at 1:38.)
"What does history say about Islam? Muslims created a tradition of unsurpassable splendor, scientific thought and timeless art[.]" (Id. at 2:10.)

Around the two-minute mark, the video begins to focus less on Islam as a religion per se , and more on the achievements of Islamic civilization. (Id. at 2:39, 3:02–25.) Also interspersed throughout the video are quotations (with attributions) from Muslim prayers, the Quran, and Muhammed. (Id. at 0:38, 1:14, 1:24, 1:48, 4:30, 4:19.) The video closes with a text slide stating, "May God help us all find the true faith, Islam. Ameen" (id. at 4:42), and another slide, seemingly from the video-creator, thanking his or her family and Allah (id. at 4:50).

C.H. later testified that he does not remember much about this video, and does not recall feeling coerced. (C.H. Dep. at 26:24–25:1, 37:3–11.)

ii. Worksheet

The second lesson further introduced students to the tenets of Islam. (DE 42, at 2.) Ms. Jakowski presented a second PowerPoint to the class that provided an overview of Islam's major characteristics and its five pillars, "the five obligations that every Muslim must satisfy in order to live a good and responsible life according to Islam." (DE 45, at 10.) As students listened to Ms. Jakowski's lesson, they were given a worksheet to complete that corresponded with the presentation. The worksheet had blanks which students would fill in, or incorrect statements which they would correct, based on information they learned. (Jakowski Dep. at 40:1–10.) The PowerPoint and worksheet covered a range of topics at a general level: for example, how often Muslims pray, the extent of alms giving, and why Muslims fast. (Worksheet at 3–5; DE 45, at 11–20.)

One slide and corresponding page of the worksheet concerned the pillar called shahadah , or "Testimony of Faith." (DE 45, at 10.) The shahadah is described as "[t]he basic statement of the Islamic faith," and the text of the shahadah was included in the PowerPoint. (Id. at 13.)5 The worksheet contained an incomplete version of the shahadah , and students filled in the blanks of the statement: "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger" (the underlined words reflect the parts of the statement which the students completed). (Worksheet at 3.) C.H. completed part of the worksheet, including the shahadah page. (C.H. Dep. at 36:1–9; DE 62-47.)6

iii. Five Pillars Video

Like the first presentation, the five-pillars presentation contained a link to a video ("Video 2") (DE 45, at 10), but Video 2 was not played in class or assigned as homework. (Jakowski Dep. at 36:4–6). C.H. watched it at home with his mother. (C.H. Dep. at 35:23–36:9). Video 2 is five minutes long and opens with text stating that "the following is an Islamic educational presentation for primary and secondary schools." (Video 2 at 0:02 (capitalization altered).) Video 2 features two cartoon-animation boys, Alex and Yusuf, discussing Islam. Yusuf is Muslim, and Alex asks him questions about his religion. For example, Alex asks Yusuf when he prays and what Muslims believe (Id. at 0:50–2:00.) Yusuf states that "Allah is the creator of everything." (Id. at 1:30–34.) Yusuf then describes the five pillars to Alex and recites the shahadah. (Id. at 2:00–2:30.) Video 2 concludes with text instructing that the viewer can order more information from the video-creator, an organization called Discover Islam, and organize a mosque tour. (Id. at 5:20.) It is clear that Discover Islam is a United Kingdom organization because its website ends in "co.uk," the text of the video uses British spelling, and Yusuf and Alex speak with British accents.

2. Hilsenrath's Complaints and Defendants’ Response

After watching the videos with C.H. and reviewing the worksheet, Hilsenrath felt that the curriculum favored Islam at the expense of Christianity and Judaism. So she sent emails expressing her concerns to (1) Steven Maher, Social Studies Content Supervisor for the School District; (2) Superintendent of Curriculum Karen Chase; (3) Superintendent Michael LaSusa; and (4) the Board of Education of the School District. (DE 62-48, 62-50.) It is important to understand the roles and responsibilities of each:

• Supervisor Maher develops the social studies curriculum and supervises the social studies teachers. (Def. SMF ¶¶ 85–88.)
• Assistant Superintendent Chase is responsible for oversight of the curriculum and Supervisor Maher. (Id. ¶ 78.)
• Superintendent LaSusa, under New Jersey law, is the "chief executive" of the District and has the power of "general supervision over all aspects, including ... instructional programs, of the schools of the district." N.J. Stat. Ann. § 18A:17-20(b) ; see also Def. SMF ¶ 72. He oversees District policy regarding curriculum and course materials, and Assistant Superintendent Chase reports to him. (Weber Dep. at 20:1–21:1, 35:10–15, 54:13–16; LaSusa Dep. at 9:22–25.) He also has the responsibility to "ensure that teachers follow" District policy that religion is treated neutrally. (DE 63-15.) Although the Board has the power to hire and fire the superintendent, the Board does not have the power to overrule him on decisions

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