A new anti-bullying program approved by the San Diego school district is unconstitutional because it is solely about Muslim students, establishing them "as a privileged group within the school community," a lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday says.
The program is designed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which is "intrinsically religious in nature, the lawsuit says. The program therefore violates the First Amendment's Establishment clause.
The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund (FCDF), which advocates for religious liberty, sued on behalf of Citizens for Quality Education in San Diego (CQE-SD), San Diego Asian Americans for Equality (SDAAFE) and several parents.
"CAIR counts itself as a religious organization, and they are obviously the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country," FCDF President Charles LiMandri told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. "If [San Diego public schools] are entangled with CAIR, that's another grounds for finding it unconstitutional.
"Both the purpose, effect and entanglement, we feel all cross the line."
The suit does not mention it, but partnering with CAIR also is problematic due to its ties to Hamas. Those connections led the FBI to end formal contacts with the group in 2008. A federal judge found that "prima facie" evidence connects CAIR to a Hamas support network in America.
"San Diego Unified does not favor any religion over another," Stan Anjan, the school district's executive director of Family and Community Engagement, wrote in a February e-mail to The San Diego Union-Tribune. "We welcome all students from all faiths within our school community."
The San Diego school board unanimously approved the program April 4. It increases what students learn about Islam in class. Schools will have safe places for Muslim students. While no religious holidays appear on the current school district calendar, Muslim holidays soon will, and campus events falling on those holidays will be rescheduled. The district also promises to "provide resources and strategies to support students during the upcoming month for Ramadan."
Students accused of bullying Muslim students will face "restorative justice," requiring them to reconcile with the other student. Under the SDUSD plan, the district will provide monthly reports on the bullying of Muslim students and post them online. A student who bullies non-Muslim students based on their religion will not face "restorative justice," LiMandri said.
This change means greater emphasis on prominent Muslims and their impact on history will appear in social studies lessons. The program also will promote a positive image of Islam, reducing the traditional Europe-centered approach.
The vast policy changes passed even though scant evidence exists that Muslim students face disproportionate harassment based on their religion.
School district data for the second half of 2016, finds only seven examples of bullying based on religion, the lawsuit says. It is not known how many of those targeted were Muslim students.
"You have to look at both the purpose and the effect; there is no need for an anti-bullying program for Islamic students based on the statistics and data that we have," LiMandri said.
San Diego school curriculum already included discussion of Islam in lessons involving other religions including Christianity and Judaism.
CAIR's material helps create "more of a comprehensive program, not just a curriculum ... We're looking at it from a very integrated and holistic approach," Anjan told The San Diego Union-Tribune.
It remains to be seen if the new curricular materials will be unconstitutional, LiMandri said, but he expressed concern over reports that imams talked about Islam in sixth-grade classes.
"They are there presenting their view of Islam as the one true and only religion that's true," LiMandri said. "It's not going to be neutral."
A 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McCollum v. Board of Education found it unconstitutional to have private religious teachers give religious instruction in public schools.
The program is a pretext for promoting Islam, LiMandri said, claiming the district has no comparable emphasis for students from other religions.
San Diego's school board passed a proclamation in 2015 "supporting and recognizing" CAIR for its work in the community.
"For 10 years the San Diego Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been involved in constructive civic engagement in San Diego and Imperial Counties. CAIR-San Diego works to promote not only religious and cultural tolerance and understanding, but also justice and equality for all who live in the United States," the proclamation said.
It recognized CAIR San Diego Executive Director Hanif Mohebi. He has cried wolf about "Islamophobic" hate crimes, including a 2012 effort by CAIR to paint the brutal murder of El Cajon, Calif. resident Shaima Alawadi as a hate crime. Her husband was convicted for the murder.
The anti-bullying program followed CAIR California's report, "Growing in Faith: California Muslim Youth Experiences with Bullying, Harassment & Religious Accommodation in Schools," FCDF's lawsuit says.
However, in that report, most Muslim students said they are comfortable with how they are treated.
However, a CAIR California report on a survey of 621 Muslim students statewide – 165 of whom were in San Diego County – contained in the CAIR report found that 55 percent of California Muslim students faced bullying based on their religious identity. The 55 percent figure may have factored into the board's decision, the Union-Tribune noted.
Additionally, CAIR complains that many schools fail to provide single-sex swim lessons or allow Muslim girls to go to gym class wearing long pants.
LiMandri takes issue with the vagueness of what CAIR believes constitutes anti-Muslim bigotry. He said he worries the policy will stifle legitimate conversations about Islamic teachings, including treatment of gays and minorities.
"Obviously a majority of Muslims in the United States would not support this, but there is a substantial number of Muslims who do believe they are justified in violence under the Quran," LiMandri said. "The fact is the Quran in 100 plus places does advocate for violence against the infidel.
"Are they going to be telling students that or not?"
LiMandri worries that CAIR will take its "anti-bullying" program nationwide if it succeeds in San Diego and use it to infringe on the rights of non-Muslim students. He notes that the school district's attorneys have recently tried to distance themselves from CAIR, but the damage already has been done.
This case could be precedent setting for how public schools interact with groups like CAIR.