Did the middle school geography lessons violate the student’s First Amendment rights?

That is the issue facing one New Jersey school district in Hilsenrath on behalf of C.H. v. Sch. Dist. of the Chathams, No. CV 18-966 (KM), 2018 WL 2980392 (D.N.J. June 13, 2018).  The suit claims that the student, C.H., has been exposed to two videos and a worksheet that contain materials that members of the Islamic faith use to express religious beliefs.  One such expression stated: “May God help us all find the true faith, Islam. Ameen.”  According to the suit, the materials have a primary purpose of promoting and advancing the Islamic religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  According to the suit, the curriculum also gives insufficient attention to the Christian and Jewish religions.

The District sought dismissal of the suit, arguing that world religions have a profound influence on human affairs and are therefore an appropriate subject of secular study.  The students study world religions as part of their academic education in a class called World Cultures and Geography, which covers many other areas of the world, including geography, trade, art, social, economic and political structures, and everyday life.

The trial court declined to dismiss the case outright and will allow it to proceed so that the evidence can be fully developed.

What will the parties have to prove to succeed?

 The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ....” This case will hinge on a test established by the US Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).

Under that test, a challenged state practice does not violate the Establishment Clause if:

(1) it has a secular purpose;

(2) its principal or primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religion; and

(3) it does not create an excessive entanglement of the government with religion.

This is called the “Lemon test” and this is what the parties will focus on as they duke it out through discovery, depositions, more legal briefing, and whatever else that might ensue in the litigation.


 Tomorrow: A sober reminder that board members can be prosecuted for knowingly conspiring to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings Act.