Wood v. Wood, 021119 FED4, 18-1430

Docket Nº:18-1430
Party Name:CALEIGH WOOD, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. EVELYN ARNOLD; SHANNON MORRIS, Defendants - Appellees, and JOHN WOOD; MELISSA WOOD, on behalf of her minor child, C.W., Plaintiffs, OF EDUCATION OF CHARLES COUNTY; CHARLES COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Defendants, CHRISTIAN ACTION NETWORK, Amicus Supporting Appellant.
Attorney:Kate Oliveri, THOMAS MORE LAW CENTER, Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Appellant. Andrew G. Scott, PESSIN KATZ LAW, P.A., Towson, Maryland, for Appellees. B. Tyler Brooks, Richard Thompson, THOMAS MORE LAW CENTER, Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Appellant. Edmund J. O'Meally, Lisa Y. Settles, PESSIN KATZ LAW, P...
Judge Panel:Before KEENAN, WYNN, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:February 11, 2019
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CALEIGH WOOD, Plaintiff - Appellant,


JOHN WOOD; MELISSA WOOD, on behalf of her minor child, C.W., Plaintiffs,


EVELYN ARNOLD; SHANNON MORRIS, Defendants - Appellees,


CHRISTIAN ACTION NETWORK, Amicus Supporting Appellant.

No. 18-1430

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

February 11, 2019

Argued: December 11, 2018

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Greenbelt. George Jarrod Hazel, District Judge. (8:16-cv-00239-GJH)


Kate Oliveri, THOMAS MORE LAW CENTER, Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Appellant.

Andrew G. Scott, PESSIN KATZ LAW, P.A., Towson, Maryland, for Appellees.


B. Tyler Brooks, Richard Thompson, THOMAS MORE LAW CENTER, Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Appellant.

Edmund J. O'Meally, Lisa Y. Settles, PESSIN KATZ LAW, P.A., Towson, Maryland, for Appellees.

David W.T. Carroll, CARROLL, UCKER & HEMMER LLC, Columbus, Ohio, for Amicus Curiae.

Before KEENAN, WYNN, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.


In this case, we consider whether two statements concerning Islamic beliefs, presented as part of a high school world history class, violated a student's First Amendment rights under either the Establishment Clause or the Free Speech Clause. The student, Caleigh Wood, contends that school officials Evelyn Arnold and Shannon Morris (the defendants) used the statements about Islam to endorse that religion over Christianity, and compelled Wood against her will to profess a belief in Islam.

Upon our review, we conclude that the challenged coursework materials, viewed in the context in which they were presented, did not violate Wood's First Amendment rights, because they did not impermissibly endorse any religion and did not compel Wood to profess any belief. We therefore affirm the district court's judgment awarding summary judgment in favor of the defendants.


During the 2014-2015 school year, Wood was an eleventh-grade student at La Plata High School, a public high school in Charles County, Maryland. Arnold was La Plata's principal, and Morris was employed as one of the school's vice-principals.

As an eleventh-grade student, Wood was required to take a world history course, which was part of the school's social studies curriculum. The year-long course covered time periods from the year "1500 to the [p]resent." Among the topics covered in the course were the Renaissance and Reformation, the Enlightenment period, the Industrial Revolution, and World Wars I and II. The topics were divided into separate units, with each unit generally being taught over a period of between ten and twenty days.

The smallest unit of the world history course, encompassing five days, was entitled "The Muslim World." The unit was "designed to explore, among other things, formation of Middle Eastern empires including the basic concepts of the Islamic faith and how it along with politics, culture, economics, and geography contributed to the development of those empires."

As part of the "Muslim World" unit, Wood's teacher presented the students with a PowerPoint slide entitled "Islam Today," which contrasted "peaceful Islam" with "radical fundamental Islam." The slide contained the statement that "Most Muslim's [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian" (the comparative faith statement) (underlining in original). The school's content specialist, Jack Tuttle, testified that use of the comparative faith statement was inappropriate, and that he would have advised a teacher who was considering teaching this statement "[n]ot to do that."

Wood also was required to complete a worksheet summarizing the lesson on Islam. The worksheet addressed topics such as the growth and expansion of Islam, the "beliefs and practices" of Islam, and the links between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Part of the worksheet required the students to "fill in the blanks" to complete certain information comprising the "Five Pillars" of Islam. Included in that assignment was the statement: "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah[, ]" a portion of a declaration known as the shahada (the shahada assignment).1 For ease of reference, we collectively refer to the comparative faith statement and the shahada assignment as the "challenged materials."

Wood's father objected to the use of the challenged materials. He asserted to the defendants that Islam should not be taught in the public school and demanded that his daughter be given alternative assignments. He directed his daughter to refuse to complete any assignment associated with Islam on the ground that she was not required to "do anything that violated [her] Christian beliefs." Wood's failure to complete the assignments that, in her view, "promot[ed] Islam," resulted in Wood receiving a lower percentage grade for the course but did not affect her final letter grade.

Wood later sued the defendants, 2 alleging that they violated the Establishment Clause by "impermissibly endors[ing] and advanc[ing] the Islamic religion." Wood further alleged that the defendants violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment by requiring her to complete the shahada assignment, thereby "depriv[ing] [her] of her right to be free from government compelled speech."3 The district court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Wood now appeals.


We review the district court's award of summary judgment de novo. See Buxton v. Kurtinitis, 862 F.3d 423, 427 (4th Cir. 2017). Wood contends that the district court erred in awarding summary judgment to the defendants on both her Establishment Clause claim and her Free Speech Clause claim. We address each claim in turn.


We begin with Wood's Establishment Clause claim. Wood contends that through the comparative faith statement, "Most Muslim's [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian," the defendants endorsed a view of Islam over Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause. Wood also argues that the assignment requiring students to write a portion of the shahada impermissibly advanced the Islamic religion and compelled Wood to "den[y] the very existence of her God." According to Wood, the challenged materials lacked any secular purpose and had the "effect of promoting and endorsing Islam." We disagree with Wood's argument.

The Establishment Clause provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." U.S. Const. amend. I, cl. 1. In evaluating an Establishment Clause claim, we apply the three-prong test set forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). See Mellen v. Bunting, 327 F.3d 355, 370 (4th Cir. 2003) ("[W]e have emphasized that the Lemon test guides our analysis of Establishment Clause challenges."); Koenick v. Felton, 190 F.3d 259, 264 (4th Cir. 1999) ("[T]his Court must rely on Lemon in evaluating the constitutionality of [government action] under the Establishment Clause." (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). Under this test, to withstand First Amendment scrutiny, "government conduct (1) must be driven in part by a secular purpose; (2) must have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) must not excessively entangle church and State." Moss v. Spartanburg Cty. Sch. Dist. 7, 683 F.3d 599, 608 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing Lemon, 403 U.S. at 612-13). The government violates the Establishment Clause if the challenged action fails any one of the Lemon factors. Buxton, 862 F.3d at 432 (quoting Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 583 (1987)).


Before applying the Lemon test, we must determine the proper scope of our inquiry, namely, whether we should examine the challenged materials in isolation or in the broader context of the world history curriculum. Wood asserts that we must analyze each statement on its own, apart from the subject matter of the class. We disagree with Wood's contention.

The Supreme Court has emphasized that for purposes of an Establishment Clause analysis, context is crucial. See County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 597 (1989) ("[T]he effect of the government's use of religious symbolism depends on its context."), abrogated on other grounds by Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. 565 (2014). To "[f]ocus exclusively on the religious component of any activity would inevitably lead to [the activity's] invalidation under the Establishment Clause." Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 679-80 (1984). Thus, when determining the purpose or primary effect of challenged religious content, courts, including this Circuit, consistently have examined the entire context surrounding the challenged practice, rather than only reviewing the contested portion. See Lambeth v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 271 (4th Cir. 2005); see also Freedom from Religion Found., Inc. v. City of Warren, 707 F.3d 686, 692-93 (6th Cir. 2013); Croft v. Perry, 624 F.3d 157, 168 (5th Cir. 2010); Fleischfresser v. Dirs. of Sch. Dist. 200, 15 F.3d 680, 688-89 (7th Cir. 1994); Cammack v. Waihee, 932 F.2d 765, 787 (9th Cir. 1991); Smith v. Bd. of Sch. Comm'rs of Mobile Cty., 827 F.2d 684, 692 (11th Cir. 1987).

Indeed, common sense dictates a context-driven approach. Viewing the challenged statements in isolation would violate the analysis mandated by the Supreme Court in Lemon. As we have stated, Lemon first requires us to consider whether teaching the challenged materials had some secular purpose. Moss, 683 F.3d at 608. Such a determination can only be made by considering the academic framework in which those materials were presented. See McCreary County v. ACLU, 545...

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