A recent decision by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the authority of public officials to establish curriculum standards and frameworks for public schools, rejecting a challenge by a group of parents who claimed that California’s History-Social Science Standards and Framework for sixth and seventh graders is discriminatory. (California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials v. Torlakson (9th Cir. 2020) _ F.3d _ [2020 WL5247607].) The Court outlined the high standards established for such a challenge and ultimately affirmed dismissal of the parents’ claims.
The lawsuit by an organization of Hindu parents of sixth and seventh grade students alleged that the 1998 Standards for History and Social Science, and the 2016 Framework implementing the Standards, carry a “hostile and denigrating message about the origins of Hinduism when compared with similar provisions relating to other religions of the world.” In particular, they claimed the Standards contain passages disparaging Hinduism by focusing on the role of invaders in the origins of the religion. The complaint alleged that the materials violated several constitutional provisions, including Due Process, Equal Protection, and the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.
The Ninth Circuit found no merit to any of Plaintiffs’ arguments. Principally, it rejected their Equal Protection claim that the Standards and Framework described Hinduism in “derogatory” and “skeptical” terms while describing other religions with “respect.” It also rejected the group’s claim that their right to Equal Protection had been violated when the Department of Education refused to accept all of the group’s proposed edits to the Framework. The Court found no intent to discriminate against the Hindu religion in any of the materials or the editing, and stated that “parents are not entitled to bring Equal Protection claims challenging curriculum content,” unless they provide evidence of unlawful intentional discrimination.
The Court also found that the Plaintiffs had failed to allege any “burden” on their religion or its practice, and therefore dismissed the Free Exercise claim. This was not a case in which the state had provided financial or similar benefits, and the Plaintiffs did not claim they had suffered any penalty or “coerced conduct.” At most, they argued that portions of the materials were “offensive” to their religious beliefs; however, the Court found there was no “specific religious conduct that was affected by the [state’s] actions,” and therefore no interference with the parents’ exercise of their religion.
The Court additionally ruled against the Plaintiffs on their Due Process claim, finding that while parents have the right to choose the “educational forum” (i.e., school) their child attends, they do not have the right to choose “what takes place inside the school.” As the Court stated, “Parents therefore do not have a due process right to interfere with the curriculum, discipline, hours of instruction, or the nature of any other curricular or extracurricular activities.” The court reiterated that “once the choice of school is made, parental rights are ‘substantially diminished.’”
Finally, the Plaintiffs’ Establishment Clause claim was dismissed. The Court rejected their argument that the materials impermissibly “endorsed” other religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) over Hinduism. The Court found that the Standards and Framework did not call for teaching biblical figures as historical fact or take a position on the historical accuracy of biblical stories, and therefore did not “endorse” the other religions. As the Court stated, “mere inclusion of passages from the Bible in course materials does not violate the Constitution.” The Court found that none of the Hindu materials were objectively disparaging and their primary effect was not hostile to Hinduism. As a result, the Court upheld the materials and the dismissal of all the group’s claims.
While this opinion addresses a specific set of facts, it confirms existing legal precedents in the area of curriculum and standards, at both the state and local levels. Most importantly, the Court reiterates the general rule that “once parents select a school, they accept that school’s curriculum, school policies, and reasonable disciplinary measures.” In order for parents to challenge approved curriculum or other actions as discriminatory, they cannot simply allege the action is objectionable to them; rather, they must allege (and ultimately prove) specific discriminatory intent on the part of school officials.