November 19, 2005

Is a role-playing lesson about Islam, complete with prayers, permitted in public schools?

The Ninth Circuit rejected the Establishment Clause claim:
During the history course at Excelsior School in the fall of 2001, the teacher, using an instructional guide, told the students they would adopt roles as Muslims for three weeks to help them learn what Muslims believe.

She encouraged them to use Muslim names, recited prayers in class and made them give up something for a day, such as television or candy, to simulate fasting during Ramadan. The final exam asked students for a critique of elements of Muslim culture.

U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ruled in favor of the school district in 2003, saying that the class had an instructional purpose and that students had engaged in no actual religious exercises.

The appeals court upheld her ruling Thursday in a three-paragraph decision that was not published as a precedent for future cases...

Edward White of the Thomas More Center, the attorney in the case for the two children and their parents, said he will ask the full appeals court for a rehearing. He said the panel failed to address his argument that the district violated parents' rights.

"What happened in this classroom was clearly an endorsement of religion and indoctrination of children in the Islamic religion, which would never have stood if it were a class on Christianity or Judaism,'' White said.
Isn't White correct? If he is, should we think that the school is more respectful of Islam or more respectful of Christianity? One might contend that the school is more hostile to the religion it would never make the students pretend to exercise, because of the exclusion, but I think the opposite is true. The role-playing seems acceptable to the teachers when they conceive of the religion as a manifestation of a culture and not really a religion at all. If you wouldn't do an exercise like this for all the religions, you shouldn't do it for any of them. Asking children to say prayers that they do not believe could be very offensive to those who actually believe the religion. And finding out that the school made your child recite prayers other than yours is infuriating.


XWL said...

Apologies to Orwell

Some religions are more equal than others.

(the ninth circuit rejecting a chance to invoke the establishment clause? Must be bizarro world, or involve Islam)

Rafique Tucker said...

Interesting case. It's hardly off-base to agree that if this were a Christian or Jewish roleplay, that the situation would be totally different. There's more truth to the existence of a double-standard then there ought to be.

I wonder though, could this fall under purely educational purposes (a la comparative religion)? Of course, this would have to apply across the board. Teaching the Bible as literature is legal, but there's still so much heat attached to allowing religious themes in the classroom (particularly Judeo-Christian ones).

I can certainly under as a Christian, how people could feel excluded, or imposed upon. It's got to be fair all the way through. If you can't pray openly in the name Jesus in class, then is fair to let them pray in the name of Allah, even if they're pretenfing?

PatCA said...

"If you wouldn't do an exercise like this for all the religions, you shouldn't do it for any of them."


I wonder what kind of grade the kids would get if they talked about the role of women in Islamic societies? And are they going to study Christmas carols in December as part of the study of that other religion?

Jack said...

Given that Christianity is both the dominant religion AND the dominant cultural influence in the US, how does one teach other cultures, especially ones that have a different religion as the dominant influence without invoking aspects of that religion?


Do we wish to remain insular?

peter hoh said...

The line between culture and religion is often blurry. In some cultures, the line hardly exists at all. Thus one can't teach about some cultures without also teaching about religion.

I think it was a mistake to use prayers in the lesson plans, but I hardly see that this constituted an endorsement of religion.

Big question: were the prayers recited in English or in Arabic? The article doesn't seem indicate. I'm assuming that the recitations were in Arabic, as my brief intro to Islam included learning to say some Arabic phrases. If the recitations were in English, I'm more skeptical of the school's position.

I agree with White's assertion that this would not have stood had the school been making the students recite Christian prayers.

I assume that the teacher would have immediately understood that reciting Christian prayers in school was wrong. This does not signal hostility toward one religion or the other, however. It suggests that the Muslim prayers were regarded differently than Christian prayers. In this case, I think the Muslim prayers were being treated as curiousities or artifacts of another culture.

I'm having a hard time seeing this as a matter of respecting one religion more than the other. It seems to indicate that one religion (Islam in this case) is regarded as so foreign as not to impinge on first amendment issues.

XWL said...

By following Jack's logic, since Christianity is the dominant religious and cultural influence in the United States then schools should include unapologitically Christian values into their cirriculum.

It would simply be a reflection of the way things are, and to excise all mentions of Christianity and Christian values would be to create an unnatural hothouse where children are being informed without being enlightened.

From Jack's tone I would guess that he wouldn't make that argument.

I am a heathen, I am not baptized, but I do know Christianity as an outsider and I don't find the open celebration of the Christian community, even in public venues to be offensive.

This ruling by the ninth doesn't make sense in light of their ruling on the pledge of allegiance unless you assume that they are of the view that some religions are more equal than others.

Few would have a problem with an open display of religiousity in public schools if that display was allowed to go both ways.

Invite Allah, Jesus, Buddha, Vishnu and all the rest into the classroom. Kids are smarter than you think, parents should be and are the biggest influence on their children and all demonstrations of faith or values shouldn't be construed as automatically violating the establishment clause.

tefta said...

Were the "women" kept locked up in the their houses and only allowed out when accompanied by a male family member and were the "men" encouraged to kill their sisters or wives if they talked to "men" outside of their families?

I'm amazed that parents didn't yank their kids out of school until this exercise in Islamic indoctrination was removed from the curriculum.

Ann Althouse said...

Jack: I certainly think they should teach about other religions and other cultures. I just have a problem with engaging in religious behavior, especially saying prayers. I think what was done here is not respectful to Islam, though it means to be.

Role-playing can be a legitimate teaching method, but they ought to test out the technique by picturing doing it with all the religions. Would they play Scientology?

"In this case, I think the Muslim prayers were being treated as curiousities or artifacts of another culture."

Exactly. Native American religions get similar patronizing attention.

Jack said...

Ann: I was not disputing what you were saying, I was merely asking what I felt were questions that were not raised explicitly. I was not trying to imply you were saying anything other that what you asserted in your post.

Regading the comments of xwl: I am not trying to enforce any logic, I am merely asking how do we teach other cultures and other religions (which may indeed be the heart of other cultures) *without* somehow invoking those other religions?

Questions... they need to be asked, and I for one certainly do not pretend that I have the answers.

Melchizedek said...

It seems like a lose-lose situation to me. Muslims may be offended by having their prayers treated as a mere cultural artifact. Non-Muslim parents on the other hand may object to having their children forced to recite Muslim prayers. Moreover, any cultural role-playing, if it is to be useful for instruction, should be authentic. Thus the role of women in the simulation should be exactly what it is in real Islamic cultures. Somehow I doubt that was the case here.

miklos rosza said...

I'd be happy to see fair, in depth examination of all the superstitions, including the Mormons and Joseph Smith, Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard, Buddha, and of course Mohammed and Islam. Let's take a look at Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy, Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, Wicca... look at them all.

But in context, without whitewashing. Giving credit also for philosophy and/or poetry inspired (if such exists).

Don't leave out the Spanish Inquisition, sure, but then you also have to talk about Ayatollah Khomeini, ink or acid thrown in unveiled women's faces in Tehran, and the murder of Theo Van Gogh.

Religius thought has offered tremendous comfort and solace for thousands of years; no matter how wised-up and postmodern you may be this thought is not to be despised.

Which doesn't mean we have to believe that the Angel Moroni presented Joseph Smith with the Book of Mormon in, what was it, 1842? Or that we cannot take a look at Mohammed as a military leader who advocated conquering the world and once married a nine year old girl.

If there's anything of value it will survive the nonsense being exposed.

Bruce Hayden said...

I do have a problem with the prayers. I think that those who are fairly devout could find offense with their kids having to pray to another version of God.

I think that it is because some secularists don't understand the place of prayer in some people's religion. Obviously, it is a big part of Islam, but is also a big part of other religions too. If they had to pray in Arabic Moslem prayers, I think you have serious forced speech and forced religion problems.

But if the school allowed the kids to pray however they wanted, I don't think there is nearly as much a problem.

PatCA said...

No, Jack, we are not to remain insular, but the so-called violations of the establishment clause have caused us to repress any artifact of our Judeo-Christian heritage, even to the point of calling Christmas break, Winter Break.

Why are we then violating the establishment clause to introduce Islam to children in an ahistorical fashion, requiring them to not merely study but to ACT as Muslims?

Akiva said...

Miklos, Melchizedek and Anne, there's several really major problems here that a little net research shows.

First, the materials used were not 'comparitive' or 'interesting review of culture' type, they are immersive representation of a cultural truth, presenting all belief's and situations as truth as presented by the Islamic perspective. (As a side note, the organization creating them is funded by the Saudi Wahabi's.) The teaching may have been from that perspective, I haven't found anything that says either way, but the materials were not.

Second, courts don't try to decide the holiness or secularity of religious practices or objects, such as the classic city hall xmas manger display problem, rather they refer to the religious leaders of the particular religion to make that determination. Is a xmas tree holy? Is a creche scene holy? Is a menorah holy, etc? In most religious there are some less religious prayers and more religious ones, such as very clear statements of faith and belief and alligience to the deity or prophet or whatever.

There is a very small prayer in Islam that is considered to be the primary belief prayer, and recitation of it in public is considered an act of acceptance of the deity, prophet and religion. Instant conversion if you will.

Guess what was one of the 'sample' practice prayers? You want an Establishment Clause problem? In practice, the school district just converted the student body to Islam. The textbook materials are specifically set up for this.

Now that doesn't practically mean anything to your average secular American, but it certainly is a big deal to those religious Americans as well as the Islamic community. Technically, by the laws of the Islamic countries, if such a student was known to have done this and travelled there with their parents on vacation, the government would legally remove the (accidental?) Islamic convert from the parents to be raised by a proper Islamic family.

ziemer said...

the religion being promoted here is not islam, it is multiculturalism.

and its creed is that all barbarian societies are superior to western civilization.

i wouldn't object so much if, after this ridiculous exercise, the children were assigned karl popper to read.

but that is SO never going to happen.

reader_iam said...

I find this deeply troubling, both the specifics of the situation and the ruling itself--perhaps because I can see so MANY different sides.

There is probably no issue on which I'm more deeply moderate than that of religion (once you step outside the realm of personal and privately held belief). I find that this makes analysis of where we currently find ourselves MORE difficult, rather than less--which is not usually the case with me: the more moderate I am, the EASIER it usually is.

So, my thought-trail here may seem a bit "early stage" and unfinished here.

First, whether rightly or wrongly, the fact that we're talking about middle-schoolers and not high-schoolers makes a difference to me. That's just a gut reaction.

Second, assuming that this was for instructional purposes only--in an instructional and comparative culture and religion sort of way-- it strikes me that it is based on the assumption that the kids did not know anything about Islam or how and why Muslims live out their faith. Which may very well--probably is, especially at that grade level (7th, in case anyway didn't get to the link)--true.

But to then not go on and teach Judaism and how and why Jews live out their beliefs, or Christianity and how and why Christians live out their beliefs implies to ME, at least, that there's an assumption that these kids DO know these things.

Well, think about that assumption, for a moment.

Is it valid?

Despite all the religious rhetoric in politics these days, despite all the court cases on issues big and small, despite the ID flap, despite it ALL:

This is largely a secular society, and more people take their cues from culture that is not explicitly religious (I mean that as a neutral statement).

More people stay away from church than not. (Yes, I know the polls on belief in God and even in the origins of man. But that's not the point.) More people than not turn to their own consciences rather than to any prescriptive, or proscriptive for that matter, religious precepts (again, I mean that as a neutral statement).

More people than not find regular, traditional knowledge of practice and religion irrelevant--and I mean that to be inclusive of the "Big 3 Traditions" and beyond. And I believe that if you take our population as a whole, relatively few people
actually have any real, useful knowledge--cultural, instructional and historical knowledge--of the so-called major religions, much less how people practice them.

Heck, even people (the full-grown ones) WITHIN certain faith traditions often don't know very much about how others within their broader "Religion" live out their faith. Some protestants don't understand what "Lent" is. Other Christians don't know understand the background of the "infant sprinkle" vs. "older full-immersion" disagreement. I'm sure there are analogies in the other religions as well.

And today's 7th-graders? Raised in this society? What should we assume about them?

I think we should find it disturbing--quite apart from the other issues, which are so profoundly NOT beside the point--that our education establishment, and even our judges, are apparently thinking SO small with regard to the larger context.

Does nobody step back and question assumptions anymore?

If one truly does, I find it hard to see any way in which one can justify teaching just one religion "instructionally," however it's done, but not others.

Seems to me it has to be all or none.

And no forced prayers, period ...

Daryl Herbert said...

Althouse said: Asking children to say prayers that they do not believe could be very offensive to those who actually believe the religion.

Akiva said: Now that doesn't practically mean anything to your average secular American

Ziemer said: the religion being promoted here is not islam, it is multiculturalism.

The consensus seems to be that this idiocy is the spawn of disrespect for (and possibly disbelief in) religion. I'm not inclined to disagree, but I've got to say that not all atheists are idiots.

I think realists are right when they say some judges make a big show of citing precedent and claiming to be restrained by methods of interpretation--when in fact they're really out there grabbing as much of what they want as they can get their filthy arms around.

(hardcore realists might say ALL judges do that, but I'd like to think JJ. Roberts and Alito are different)

Undercover Christian said...

As a Christian I would be pretty pissed if a public school in an Islamic community was doing pretend baptisms, confirmations, communions, recitations of the creeds, and so on. I would imagine that Muslims are pretty pissed about the program at this school.

Sloanasaurus said...

Perhaps the judge's ruling is an admission by her that we live in a Christian nation, something I am she she would care not to admit.

ziemer said...


you do know i assume that could never happen.

things like this could only happen in the united states, where the state has adopted a sick theology -- that its own civilization is inferior to barbarism -- and mandates that its children be taught that theology.

the barbarians who practice islam are not going to do the same, so your hypothetical is not just hypothetical, it is moot.

the most telling sentnece in the article is the one stating that the teachers considered what they were doing to be "mainstream."

that says it all.

Tristram said...

I wonder if the 9th Ciruit Court would have accepted the resoning of a roleplay of the Passover Seder or Christian Communion (or even the Lord's Prayer)?

And it also ironic that the opt-out option figured so prominently as a justification for letting the exercise stand when they were so dissmissive of the opt-out in the pledge case.

brylin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
brylin said...


"In last year's session, the 9th Circuit's reversal rate was 75 percent. Over the last three years, it has averaged 74 percent. In the last five years, the average is 78 percent, including a 90 percent rate for the 1999-2000 session."

Remember when a 3-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit tried to block the California recall of Governor Gray Davis?

How about the Ninth Circuit ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional?

Ann Althouse said...

Tristram: The opt out is important because, without it, it would be blatantly unconstitutional. The law there is really clear. With the opt out, it's a harder question, but it's certainly not the end of the Establishment Clause inquiry.

Ann Althouse said...

Brylin: It's important to note that most federal court of appeals cases don't go to the Supreme Court, which decides only about 80 cases a year, from all the federal and state courts. The Supreme Court chooses what to review, and the tendency to reverse the cases it chooses isn't much of an indication of how out-of-line the the circuit generally is. Keep in mind too, that the 9th Circuit is by far the largest circuit, so there are just more 9th Circuit cases from which to choose the select few that are going to get to the Supreme Court. So the statistics you cite aren't as meaningful as you might be thinking.

dick said...


You make a good point when you say that most people turn to their own consciences rather than religion. What you seem to forget is that the consciences are based on the prevailing ethos of the community and that prevailing ethos is primarily based on the Judeo-Christian belief system. So when they are turning to their own consciences, they are for better or worse and whether they are agnostic or atheistic or Muslim turning to the Judeo-Christian belief system. I think that sentence made sense.

Therefore, the approach to the question of the role of prayer or anything else in the religion will be based on your being essentially Judeo-Christian and looking on it as a learning experience and something to examine, not believe in. However, the religion examined looks on it as something totally different and what they believe should trump your learning experience. You can learn without actually practicing and when it comes to somebody else's core religious beliefs that should be the case.

What the court is accepting is a slap in the face of not only the Muslim religion but also the other religions that are not treated the same way. They went way out of bounds on this one IMNSHO.

brylin said...


And what about the specific decisions I cited involving Gray Davis and the pledge of allegiance? Is your position that the Ninth Circuit is one of the more reasonable circuits? Can you point to other circuits with decisions such as these?

Sean said...

Ann is not quite right when she says that defenders of this program see Islam as a culture, not a religion. I think that both the public school teachers and the 9th circuit judges see Islam as a political statement of opposition to "the West." This point if view is common on the left these days, where it is pretty much mainstream to believe that wearing short skirts to offend Muslims is a war crime, but doing it to offend Catholics is cute and subversive, or that urinating on the Koran is a human rights violation, but urinating on a crucifix is art.

I know Ann will be upset with me, because despite my J.D. degree, I do not believe that there is thing called "law," different from "politics," and that the 9th circuit does the former. So it doesn't seem productive to me to analyze establishment clause doctrine, at least not if your goal is to predict how the 9th circuit will be deciding cases.

mrsizer said...

I find myself agreeing with "reader_iam": This is far more complex than it seems.

Islam is a major force in the world that we're dealing with right now. I would WANT my child's school to teach something about it. I like the idea of innovative curriculum - teach-by-number bores kids.

Accuracy is important, though. Did the class separate the boys and girls? Run a sheet down the middle of the classroom? Interrupt lessons several times a day to "pray"?

Prayers in Arabic would be useless - they wouldn't be understood. How was it done? A rote recitation is a bit troubling, but running through it then explaining line by line what it means to Muslims seems OK to me. Much as doing the same with the Our Father or Apostle's Creed would be.

I can also see why people of every stripe could be infuriated by this. Devout non-Muslims wouldn't want their children reciting Muslim prayers. Devout Muslims wouldn't want non-Muslims "mocking" their prayers. Secular (devout?) parents would be upset about bring prayer into the school at all.

Does this mean our school systems shouldn't touch religion at all? Isn't one of the points of having a public school system to give all students good information (instead of allowing them to be indocrinated with whatever at home)? Where are our children supposed to learn about the rest of the world if not in school?

Is this an issue of one teacher's bad lesson structure or is it an issue that will come up no matter what lesson structure is used to teach kids about religion? Do we really want our public schools to leave kids ignorant of vast swaths of culture and history just because it somehow involves religion?

This is a tough question.

Tony said...

The Supreme Court chooses what to review, and the tendency to reverse the cases it chooses isn't much of an indication of how out-of-line the the circuit generally is.

Ann, are you saying the Supreme Court generally agrees to hear cases they are going to overturn?

That is the only reason I can think that the statistics aren't valid.

ziemer said...


the way it works is this:

the 9th circuit has a handful of left wing kooks who rule however they want, scotus precedent be damned.

scotus takes a handful of those cases every year and issues unanimous per curiam reversals.

remove those cases from the mix, and the 9th circuit really isn't that different from any other.

that's the only reason the statistics are so off for the 9th circuit.

ziemer said...


oops, i missed an important point.

in between the sentences stating "the 9th circuit" and "scotus" add:

when 2 of those judges wind up on the same 3-judge panel, anything can happen.

Knemon said...

"I am a heathen, I am not baptized, but I do know Christianity as an outsider and I don't find the open celebration of the Christian community, even in public venues to be offensive."

Hey, whaddaya know - me too!

I've tried to explain this to fellow heathens before. Normally doesn't go over too well.


If the kids are saying the shahada, they're converting (actually, "reverting") to Islam.

I don't *think* there's a "cultural exercise" exemption ... but then again, I'm not a scholar of Islam.

Paging Juan Cole ...

Pogo said...

Looks like the 9th circuit just gave much of the South the judicial precedence for supporting Christian school prayers.

"See, judge, we're just acting it out. For educational purposes, of course."

R3 said...

No wonder our kids can't perform simple arithmetic; we're wasting valuable class time on useless touchy-feely thematic crap.

rafinlay said...

If we are to buy the "teaching cultural differences" model, then I have to assume that there would be no objection to a three week exercise in convent/abbey life ... even (especially) for any muslim/jewish students who might be there. No, I think this was a political act by the school (teacher/administration/district).

The question is: is it an allowable political act?

Gina Cobb said...

Related post:

Now That Schools Can Teach Islam, They Can Teach Christianity Too


tcd said...


You are so right. The school should not assume that the students are already knowledgeable about the other religions that are not being taught. The school should definitely give equal time to all religions. I think a basic knowledge regarding the major religions (reciting actual prayers is too extreme IMO) would be useful for everyone, if so just to avoid major faux pas in conversations at business or social events. I usually don't offend easily except when someone makes a glaring error as in the case of my mother-in-law who remarked that "my people" were responsible for 9/11. I am Buddhist. It's occasions like this and other small things (like when I walk into a home decoratoring shop and see a statue of Buddha sitting on the floor next to the dirty bathroom or when I see a neon lit version of Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper" in a shop in Little Saigon) that make me cringe. I may not practice the same religion as everyone here but I do respect their different religions.

And ziemer,
Your comment regarding "barbarian societies" qualifies as a cringe-inducing moment. I read that as meaning all non-Christians are barbarians. Is that what they teach at your church? I ask because at the Methodist church that I used to attend with my husband's grandmother, the pastor never said that.

PatCA said...

BTW Michelle Malkin has the original class assignment up.

Oliver Towne said...

I hope everyone had a chance to read the whole 24-page lesson plan. If you did, you'd see the implicit instructions NOT to actually pray. There is a glossary that can be used during the role-play where students can pepper their speech with Islamic phrases. The phrases are, in English: Peace be with you, My name is, Go in peace, and God willing.

And that's it.

No getting on the floor, no facing Mecca, no fasting, and the trip to Mecca plays out like a dopey Honors Class board game.

The Althouse question gets it wrong, and therefore some of the insightful posts on this thread are discussing a situation that doesn't exist.

ziemer said...


obviously, i don't go to church; i'm not a child.

but the fact is that, where some religions are dominant, liberty and civilization flourish.

where others are dominant, only barbarism flourishes.

i don't consider it a coincidence.

Jack's Shack said...

I certainly am not in favor of introducing religion to school.