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Court rules in favor of school in free-speech lawsuit

LA PLATA, Md. - A Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled this week that La Plata High School and its administrators did not violate a student’s First Amendment rights during a world history class that included lessons about Islam.

In the fall of 2014, the family of Caleigh Wood, then a junior at La Plata, sued the school system and some of its administrators claiming two lessons violated Wood’s right to freedom of religion and speech.

One lesson contained a comparative PowerPoint slide titled “Islam Today,” which contrasted “peaceful Islam” with “radical fundamental Islam.” Additionally, the lesson included a fill-in-the-blank worksheet asking students to complete information on the “Five Pillars” of Islam. Wood’s father objected to the lessons, claiming they violated his daughter’s Christian beliefs. He told his daughter to refuse to complete the assignment. The three-judge panel found that the assignments did not advance any particular religion and was introduced for a genuine secular purpose.

The court disagreed with Wood’s claim that the assignments promoted and endorsed Islam and noted in its opinion that the challenged materials constituted a small part of the school’s world history curriculum. “A reasonable observer, aware of the world history curriculum being taught, would not view the challenged materials as communicating a message of endorsement,” Judge Barbara Keenan, who was joined by Judge James Wynn and Judge Pamela Harris, wrote.

“Our schools play an important role in ensuring that our children are provided with information that best prepares them to understand and thrive in a society with many different cultural and religious viewpoints. We present a curriculum with that goal in mind. We are pleased that the Fourth Circuit agreed with us that there was no violation of any student’s rights,” Superintendent Kimberly Hill said.

“School authorities, not the courts, are charged with the responsibility of deciding what speech is appropriate in the classroom. …Although schools are not ‘immune from the sweep of the First Amendment,’ academic freedom is itself a concern of that amendment. Such academic freedom would not long survive in an environment in which courts micromanage school curricula and parse singular statements made by teachers,” Keenan wrote.

“We are pleased with the court’s opinion and believe it rightfully affirms the ability of public school educators to teach students about the role religion has had on world history without violating the First Amendment.  We also believe the court’s ruling properly affirms the ability of public school educators to require students to complete assignments with which they may have personal disagreements as long as those assignments are reasonably related to a legitimate educational purpose,” said Andrew Scott, an attorney who represented Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) and several of its administrators.

The Fourth Circuit opinion affirms an earlier ruling by a U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland judge who granted summary judgment in favor of several of CCPS’ employees. The Woods appealed that decision.

Previous story on TheBayNet.com here

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