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New Jersey Federal Court to Rehear Religious Freedom in Schools Case After SCOTUS Kennedy Decision

The District Court of New Jersey will reconsider a lawsuit over teaching children about Islam in a middle school “World Cultures and Geography” class, in the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 142 S. Ct. 2407 (June 27, 2022).

In Kennedy, the Supreme Court held that a Washington State high school football coach should not have been fired for leading his team in mid-field prayers immediately after games and inviting local media and politicians to attend to watch.

The school district had found that under the district’s policy, the practice violated students’ religious freedom rights and created a safety risk by creating a public spectacle. The Supreme Court held that, since the games had ended when the coach began prayer, his prayers were “private speech, not government speech,” and he was not “acting within the scope of his duties as a coach.”

Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the school district’s policy had violated his right to free exercise of religion by prohibiting him from leading prayer after football games.

The test for determining whether a law sufficiently distinguished between church and state was previously explained in Lemon v, Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), which required a court to examine a law’s purposes, effects, and potential for entanglement with religion, and whether the action could be considered an “endorsement” of religion. In Kennedy, the Supreme Court rejected this test without setting forth any clear new test, only noting that religious exercise cannot be “coerced.”

In Hilsenrath v. School District of the Chathams, D.N.J. No. 2-18-cv-00966, a mother filed suit against the school district, claiming her seventh-grader (now a senior in high school) was subject to proselytizing about Islam in her middle school “World Cultures and Geography” class, favoring Islam over Christianity and Judaism. U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty dismissed the suit in 2020, finding the school was teaching, not indoctrinating. Judge McNulty explained, “[F]or secular educators to teach and study about such [religious] statements is not to espouse them, or to proselytize.” But on July 20, the Third Circuit vacated the Hilsenrath judgment and remanded it to the District Court “for further consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. Dist.” The Third Circuit’s order does not say what the District Court should do on remand, only that it should consider the case.

This is only one of what will surely be many decisions to be reconsidered around the country in the wake of Kennedy, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has elevated the free-exercise rightand rejected the established Lemon test. Should the District of New Jersey hold that teaching about Islam in this manner constitutes impermissible religious speech, it would cause a large  shift in the ability of public schools to educate students about world religions and cultures, especially those that are not Christianity or Judaism.

 

Search terms:  religious freedom, religious freedom of Islam, free exercise of religion, religion in schools, separation of church and state, religious speech, religion in public schools

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