Buddhism teaching

Court rejects constitutional challenge to critical teaching on Islamic terrorism

I think that’s generally quite fair, and indeed an important victory for academic freedom; professors, including those in public colleges, should be able to speak freely about religious belief systems (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or whatever), no less than other belief systems.

Of Sabra v. Maricopa County Comm. College Dist.decided this morning by Judge Susan M. Brnovich (D. Ariz.):

Stemming from a module on Islamic terrorism in an online course on global politics taught by Dr. Nicholas Damask, this case tests the limits of the religious clauses of the First Amendment. Mohamed Sabra enrolled in this spring semester course at Scottsdale Community College (“SCC”) in 2020. His curriculum describes him as one that will provide a “[i]Introduction to the principles and issues relating to the study of international relations. Assessment of the political, economic, national and transnational justification of international interactions.”

The course is organized into six modules, each containing several components to explore various topics concerning global politics. The module on Islamic terrorism challenged by Mr. Sabra and the Arizona Council on American-Islamic Relations… had three components: a PowerPoint presentation, excerpts from Future Jihad and a quiz. The PowerPoint presentation explored global politics through three sub-themes: (1) “Defining Terrorism”; (2) “Islamic terrorism: definition”; and (3) “Islamic Terrorism: Analysis”. The second component asked students to read excerpts from Future Jihad, a book published by Walid Phares, and the quiz assessed students on their understanding of the course material with twenty-five multiple-choice questions.

Plaintiffs challenge Dr. Damask’s instructions throughout these various components of the Islamic Terrorism Module, alleging that his teachings violate the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause…. The plaintiffs allege that his instructions are unconstitutional to “find[es] that Islam “enforces” terrorism and the killing of non-Muslims, and that this is the only interpretation of religious texts, but without any disclaimer to inform students that this is a unique perspective and that Islam itself does not tolerate terrorism. allege that Dr. Damask “does not teach that only certain extremists espouse these beliefs, but rather that literally, Islam itself teaches the mandates of terrorism”.

And “[t]he only objectively reasonable construction of [Dr.] Damask’s actions,” the plaintiffs allege, “is that his primary message is disapproval of Islam.” With respect to the quiz specifically, the plaintiffs allege”[it] strength [Mr.] Sabra to accept [Dr. Damask’s] radical interpretation of Islam.” And when Mr. Sabra refused to answer questions in accordance with what he had learned in the course, his answers were marked as wrong and his course grade was negatively affected….

The court dismissed Sabra’s Establishment Clause challenge (applying the “approval” test established by Ninth Circuit precedent, though the Supreme Court appears to have backed away from that test in American Legion vs. American Humanist Ass’n):

“The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment state that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. “”This includes not only the government’s approval of religion, but its disapproval or hostility towards religion. [citing Ninth Circuit cases].

Courts are bound to apply the “Lemon test” in cases challenging government conduct under the Establishment Clause. Government action regarding religion satisfies the Establishment Clause only if it (1) has a secular purpose; (2) n does not promote or inhibit religion as a principle or primary effect; and (3) does not promote excessive entanglement with religion. Lemon vs. Kurtzman (1971).

Plaintiffs submit that the impugned module fails under the second prong of the Lemon test. “Under the second pane of the Lemon test, [the Court] must consider whether the government action has the primary or primary effect of promoting or inhibiting religion. In making this decision, the courts decide whether it would be “objectively reasonable for the government’s action to be interpreted as primarily sending a message of approval or disapproval of religion.” The analysis is to determine whether the government action “‘mainly’ disapproves” of religious beliefs, even if it can be inferred that the government may disapprove of religious beliefs.

Under this objective standard, even when government practice reflects “some disapproval” of religion, that alone is not enough to violate the Establishment Clause. “Courts have long emphasized the importance of academic freedom in deciding the appropriate curriculum for the classroom.”

Looking at the course as a whole, a reasonable and objective observer would conclude that the primary purpose of the teaching was not the inhibition of religion. The criminal component made up only one-sixth of the course and was taught in the context of explaining terrorism. One aspect of terrorism is Islamic terrorism. Only by choosing selected quotes from the course can one qualify the module as anti-Islam. Dr. Damask also cites Peter Bergen for the view that the terrorist threat comes from radical terrorist groups who represent a “twisted” variant of Islam as a whole.

{Furthermore, as plaintiff’s counsel misstated in his closing argument, question 19 of Dr. Damask’s quiz on terrorism states: “Walid Phares notes that although ‘gullible’ Westerners learn that jihad can have two meanings, people in the Arab world understand that overwhelmingly the obvious meaning is ___.” This question simply asks students to identify Walid Phares’ opinion regarding Islam, not to adopt his position on Islam.} Thus, the Court concludes that the primary effect of Dr. is not the inhibition of the practice of Islam….

And the court dismissed Sabra’s free exercise clause challenge:

“The Free Exercise Clause, which applies to states under the Fourteenth Amendment, “protects religious observers from unequal treatment” and from “laws that impose special disabilities based on religious status.” does not violate the free exercise clause. Parker vs. Hurley (1st Cir. 2008) (requiring public school students to read a book featuring same-sex couples did not violate the constitutional rights of Christian parents or children); California Parents for Education Equalization. Materials c. Torlakson (ND Cal. 2017) (ruling that forcing students to learn class material which plaintiffs considered “derogatory of Hinduism” did not violate the free exercise clause)….

Here, Mr. Sabra alleges that he was forced to choose between denouncing his religion by selecting the “correct” answer or receiving a lower mark. It’s just not right. As the defendants point out, Mr. Sabra was not required to adopt the views expressed by Dr. Damask or the authors cited by Dr. Damask in his course, but only to demonstrate an understanding of the material being taught. Dr. Damask’s course in no way inhibited Mr. Sabra’s personal adoration. Instead, Mr. Sabra was simply exposed to “attitudes and viewpoints at odds” with his own religious perspective. Therefore, as a matter of law, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s allegations do not constitute a breach of the Free Exercise Clause….