CHATHAM, N.J. — A mother in New Jersey has filed suit against her son’s school district, principal and several social studies teachers after one of his homework assignments for his seventh grade World Cultures and Geography class included watching two specific Islamic-themed videos that she found to be coercive propaganda.
Libby Hilsenrath and her son, who was 12 at the time, are challenging Chatham Middle School and the School District of the Chathams, as well as teachers Megan Keown and Christine Jakowski.
She states that in Jan. 2017, she reviewed her son’s homework assignments via an online portal, and noticed that he was to watch a video entitled “Introduction to Islam.” The five-minute video makes the assertions that “Allah is the one God,” “Muhammad is the last and final messenger of God,” and that the “beautiful Quran” is “guidance for the wise and sensible.”
It concludes with the statement, “May God help us all find the true faith, Islam. Ameen.”
According to Hilsenrath, students were also asked to watch a video about the pillars of Islam, a cartoon in which a Muslim boy explains to his non-Muslim friend concepts such as the shahada (“There is no God except Allah and prophet Muhammad is his messenger”) and the Islamic requirement to pray five times a day. By the end of the video, the non-Muslim boy leaves with his Islamic friend to join him for prayer.
In her lawsuit, Hilsenrath expressed concern that the videos contained no disclaimers and that they were to be viewed at home without any supervision of a teacher.
“Defendants’ curriculum also contained a worksheet requiring the children to engage in a fill-in-the-blank written profession of the shahada, the Islamic conversion creed and prayer,” the complaint also explained. “Further, this worksheet contain[ed] a hyperlink directing students to another webpage that explains to the students the ease with which they could convert to become a Muslim.”
Hilsenrath emailed the school superintendent about the matter and also attended a board meeting to outline her concerns, but the curriculum in general was not found to be problematic. The district said that the lessons were simply meant to educate children about “the world around them.”
“We build and strengthen awareness and understanding through exposure and engagement, and we do so in age-appropriate and instructionally purposeful ways that support and exceed the New Jersey student learning standards,” Superintendent Michael Lasusa said in a social media post following the meeting.
However, Hilsenrath said that she found the material to be coercive and not just simply educational.
“By including the conversion and pillars videos in the Chatham Middle School curriculum and on the school’s official online classroom, the videos bear the imprint of Defendants and Chatham Middle School, thus putting the school age children in the untenable position of enduring and actively participating in the videos,” the suit reads.
“Defendants, by initiating and requiring Islamic prayer, have forced a coercive decision on the Plaintiff and her son: either endure Islamic prayer and other promotion of Islam or forgo completing assignments, thereby risking a lower grade and other negative consequences,” it asserts.
Hilsenrath also contends that the videos have the appearance of government endorsement of religion as the matter was not presented neutrally.
She is seeking both an injunction and nominal damages.
“What would people say if our public schools taught Christianity as the true faith?” asked Thomas More Law Center President Richard Thompson. “After watching this video, I can’t imagine any reasonable person saying this is not Islamic indoctrination. Chatham Middle School made a mockery of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”
An attorney for the district told the Daily Record that it “denies the allegations contained in the complaint and will vigorously defend the district, its Board of Education and staff from the allegations contained therein.”