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Absent Evidence Of Unlawful Intentional Discrimination, Parents Are Not Entitled To Bring Equal Protection Claims Challenging Curriculum Content. Allegedly Offensive Content That Does Not Penalize, Interfere With, Or Otherwise Burden Religious Exercise Do
The California State Board of Education adopted content standards for history and social science in 1998. The Content Standards briefly outlined the history of the world’s first major civilizations and religions. The State Board then adopted the Curriculum Framework for history and social science in 2016 after a lengthy comment process that solicited feedback from the public. School districts use the Content Standards and Curriculum Frameworks to design more tailored course curricula.
The non-profit organization, California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials and three parents were unhappy with the Standards and Frameworks and filed a lawsuit against the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education alleging violations of several constitutional provisions including Due Process, Equal Protection, and the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.
Specifically, the Plaintiffs argued the Department and State Board violated the Equal Protection clause because the content of the Standards and Framework described Hinduism in derogatory terms and from the perspective of a skeptic, but the same material described other religions with respect. Additionally, the Plaintiffs argued the Department and State Board refused to accept all of their proposed edits to the Frameworks, even though it accepted edits from other religious groups during the notice and comment process. The Plaintiffs alleged that the Standards and Frameworks “indoctrinate children with beliefs biased deeply against Hinduism and in favor of the Abrahamic religions,” and interfere with the liberty interests of parents to control the upbringing and education of their children. Finally, the Plaintiffs alleged the Standards and Framework unconstitutionally endorsed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, because the content called for the teaching of religious events, significant to those religions, as historical fact. The Plaintiffs finally alleged the materials had the primary effect of disparaging or denigrating Hinduism. All of the Plaintiffs’ constitutional claims related to particular passages in the Standards and Framework they found objectionable. None of the arguments challenged the Department or State Board’s overall policy of providing students with an introduction to the major world religions and none related to material students actually see in the classroom.
The Department and State Board filed a motion with the trial court to request a judgment without an evidentiary hearing, known as a motion for summary judgment. At the hearing on the motion for summary judgment, the Plaintiffs offered an expert report to explain the significance of certain terms in the Standards and Framework from the perspective of an academic religious scholar. The trial court declined to consider the expert report and ultimately dismissed all of the Plaintiffs’ claims. The Plaintiffs appealed.
The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision that the Plaintiffs’ based their Equal Protection claim on objections to course content, which, without evidence of unlawful intentional discrimination, was barred by previous Ninth Circuit Court rulings. On appeal, the Plaintiffs also argued the State Board failed to incorporate their requested edits into the Frameworks and solicited and accepted suggestions from a group of historical scholars they argued was hostile to Hinduism. However, the Plaintiffs did not describe this process as discriminatory. The Court of Appeals found that although the Plaintiffs did not like the edits, a dislike of challenged content of the Standards or Framework did not constitute a constitutional violation of Equal Protection absent an allegation of discriminatory policy or intent. Because the Plaintiffs did not allege a discriminatory policy or intent, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to dismiss the Plaintiffs’ Equal Protection claims.
The trial court also dismissed the Plaintiffs’ Free Exercise clause claim because it found the Plaintiffs failed to allege that the Department or State Board imposed any burden on their religious exercise or practice. On appeal, the Plaintiffs argued the trial court failed to consider recent Supreme Court decisions that eliminated the requirement that they plead a burden on their religious exercise. The Court of Appeals was not persuaded. Here, the state did not provide financial or other benefits not did it carve out any exclusion for religious education in the curriculum materials. Additionally, the Plaintiffs did not allege that the state assessed any penalty or coerced conduct. Therefore, although the trial court did not analyze the specific cases identified by the Plaintiffs, the cases would not alter the trial court’s analysis that the Plaintiffs failed to allege any specific religious conduct that was affected by the Department or State Board’s actions. Ultimately, offensive content that does not penalize, interfere with or otherwise burden religious exercise does not violate Free Exercise rights.
Next, the Plaintiffs argued the Department and State Board violated the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of due process because the curricular materials were “religiously bigoted.” However, the Court of Appeals held the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed parents a right to make decisions regarding the “care, custody, and control of their children,” but parents did not have the right to choose the curriculum of the educational forum of their choice. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that the Plaintiffs did not state a valid substantive due process claim.
Plaintiffs also argued the trial court mishandled their Establishment clause claims. Specifically, the Plaintiffs argued that an objective reading of Standards and Framework revealed an impermissible endorsement of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the trial court incorrectly granted the State Board summary judgment on the Plaintiffs’ claim that those materials disparaged Hinduism. The Plaintiffs also argued the trial court should not have excluded their expert report produced at summary judgment.
The Court of Appeals held the Standards and Frameworks did not call for the teaching of biblical events or figures as historical fact, thereby implicitly endorsing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The materials did not take a position on the historical accuracy of the stories or figures, and the Supreme Court stated that the mere inclusion of passages from the Bible in course materials did not violate the Constitution. The Court of Appeals did not find that an objective reading of the Standards and Framework supported the Plaintiff’s claims that the materials were disparaging Hinduism. Instead, the Standards and Framework reflect careful crafting by the State Board to achieve a balanced portrayal of different world religions. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held it must evaluate the Standards and Framework from the perspective of an objective, reasonable observer and not that of an academic who is an expert in the field, so an expert report is irrelevant to the trial court’s determination. Accordingly, the Department and State Board did not violate the Establishment Clause.
Finally, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that the challenged content of the Standards and Framework, and process leading up to the Framework’s adoption, did not disparage or otherwise express hostility to Hinduism in violation of the Constitution.
California Parents for the Equalization of Educ. Materials v. Torlakson (2020) __ F.3d __ [2020 WL 5247607].