By Caroline Hamilton and Alex Prunka
During the 2014–15 school year, Caleigh Wood was an eleventh grade student at La Plata High School in Charles County, Maryland. Wood was required to take a world history course as a part of the school’s curriculum, featuring a small, five-day unit entitled “The Muslim World.” This unit was designed to “explore, among other things, formation of Middle Eastern empires including the basic concepts of the Islamic faith and how it along with politics, culture, economics, and geography contributed to the development of those empires.” Wood took issue with two aspects of the Muslim World unit: (1) the PowerPoint slide which stated “most Muslim’s [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian [sic]” and (2) a worksheet summarizing the lesson that required her to complete certain information about the Islamic faith.
Wood sued the defendants Evelyn Arnold, Shannon Davis, the Board of Education of Charles County, and the Charles County Public Schools. In Wood v. Arnold, she asserted two claims: (1) the defendants violated the Establishment Clause by “impermissibly endors[ing] and advanc[ing] the Islamic religion;” and (2) that defendants violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment by requiring her to complete the shahada assignment thereby depriving her “of the right to be free from government compelled speech.” The United States District Court for the District of Maryland granted summary judgment to the defendants on all claims, and Wood appealed.
Wood’s first claim was based on the Establishment Clause. She argued that the defendants endorsed a view of Islam over Christianity, which violates the Establishment Clause based on the comparative faith statement that read “Most Muslim’s faith is stronger than the average Christian.” Wood also believed that the assignment which required to fill in the blanks regarding the lesson plan impermissibly advanced Islam and compelled Wood to deny the existence of her God. Wood argued that the religious endorsement could not be overcome by the secular purposes alleged by the defendants.
Regarding Wood’s Free Speech Clause challenge, she contended that the defendants violated her right to free speech by requiring her to fill in the sentence “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” on the after lesson worksheet. From her position, Wood believed that this worksheet forced her to confess, by written word and deed, her faith in Allah. Having been raised in a strong Christian household, Wood took offense to what she and her parents perceived as forced proclamation of Islamic beliefs.
In response to Wood’s Establishment Clause claim, defendants argued the unit satisfied the first prong of the Lemon test because the purpose of the Muslim unit was primarily secular and that the single statement made on the power point rose to a level of promoting Islam. In regards to the second prong of the Lemon test, the defendants emphasized the importance of analyzing whether the school was acting to promote a particular religion from an objective standpoint and that the District Court was correct in not taking into account specific, subjective statements made by certain school officials. Finally, the defendants patently rejected the theory that the comparative faith statement and the fill in the blank worksheet could lead a reasonable juror to find excessive entanglement between the school and religion. It simply does not rise to the level of requiring Wood to profess Islam or denounce Christianity, nor does it in any way bear resemblance to a statement made by an evangelical.
In response to Wood’s Free Speech Clause challenge, the defendants argue that the classroom is not a public forum worthy of the full battery of First Amendment protections. Additionally, defendants argue that Wood was never asked to profess her belief in Islam but rather, was asked to showcase her understanding of the Islamic religion in the context of a world history class. Thus, the forum of the classroom in conjunction with the type of “compelled” speech indicate that the fill in the blank worksheet does not violated her First Amendment rights.
The Court’s Opinion
The Court affirmed the District Court’s granting of summary judgement in favor of the defendants on both counts. The court acknowledged that the proper analysis for an Establishment Clause issue is the Lemon test, which asks (1) whether the challenged material has some secular purpose; (2) whether the principal effect of government action is to suggest government preference for a particular religious view or for religion in general; and (3) whether the government action created an excessive entanglement between government and religion. However, the court first had to decide the relevant scope of inquiry—whether the challenged materials should be considered in isolation or whether they should be considered within the broader context of the world history class. Following circuit court precedent, the court held that it was proper to consider the challenged content in the context of the world history class. Here, the court found that the challenged religious content did not offend any of the three Lemon test prongs.
The first prong imposes a “fairly low hurdle,” merely requiring the government to show that it had a plausibly secular purpose. So long as the proffered secular purpose is genuine and not a sham, the purpose will satisfy the first prong of the Lemon test. Here, the court determined that the purpose of the two pieces of challenged content did have a primarily secular purpose. The court noted that the Supreme Court has recognized the value in studying religion on a comparative basis. Neither the comparative faith statement being challenged or the shahada worksheet indicate a religious purpose; rather, the school had a predominantly secular purpose in teaching world history, and the subsequent shahada worksheet was in line with the academic work to be expected after a lesson plan. Thus, the court was quickly satisfied that the school was acting with a predominantly secular purpose.
Turning to the second prong of the Lemon test, the court asked whether a reasonable, informed observer would conclude that by its actions, the government has endorsed a particular religion. In analyzing this prong, courts assume that the reasonable observer is aware of the context surrounding the government action. The court found that neither of the challenged statements indicated that the school endorsed Islam or that the school was forcing its students to endorse and participate in Islamic practices. It distinguished the challenged content from a situation in which a school forces students to pray, which would offend the Lemon test. In fact, the challenged content was integrated into the secular curriculum and only constituted a minor part of the Muslim unit, which was only a minor part of the world history class. Thus, the court concluded that “common sense” indicates that the school was not endorsing any religious beliefs through either of the challenged content.
In dealing with the third prong, the court examined whether the government action led to an excessive entanglement between government and religion. The court determined that they “need not dwell long on the entanglement prong” because the comparative faith statement and shahada assignment neither advanced nor inhibited religion. The secular nature of the content, in conjunction with the minor role it played in the context of the world history class, led the court to quickly find there was no entanglement issues caused by the comparative faith statement or the shahada assignment.
The court then turned to Wood’s Free Speech Clause challenge. Although the court acknowledged that compelled speech usually gets rigorous scrutiny, this presumption needs to be balanced with the reality that students’ rights in public schools are not “automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.” The court here agreed with the Third Circuit’s approach, which stated that, in the educational context, students sometimes are forced to speak when they would rather not and that does not offend the First Amendment. From this basis, the court went on to find that the shahada assignment did not require Wood to profess or accept the tenants of Islam or take part in any devotion practice related to Islam. Therefore, Wood’s right against compelled speech was not violated.
The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in a relatively short opinion, affirmed the granting of summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The court did not find merit on either of Wood’s assertions that the comparative faith statement or the shahada worksheet violated the Establishment Clause or the Free Speech Clause. The content in question was a minor part of a small unit about the Muslim world in the context of a world history class. The purpose for this content is clearly secular in nature and would not have led a reasonable juror to find that Wood’s rights were violated.
 Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308, 312 (4th Cir. 2019).
 Id. at 312–13.
 915 F.3d 308 (4th Cir. 2019).
 Id. at 313.
 The Establishment Clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” U.S. Const. amend. I, cl. 1.
 Wood, 919 F.3d at 313.
 Id. at 318.
 Id. at 319.
 Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint ¶¶ 34–40, Wood v. Arnold, (No. 8:16-cv-00239-GJH), 2016 WL 6136525 (D. Md. Oct. 11, 2016).
 Corrected Brief for Defendants-Appellants at 13, Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308 (No. 18-1430) (4th Cir. 2019).
 Id. at 19–21.
 Id. at 22–24.
 Id. at 25–26.
 See id. at 31.
 Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308, 314 (4th Cir. 2019).
 Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).
 Wood, 915 F.3d at 314–15 (citingLambeth v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 271 (4th Cir. 2005)).
 Id. at 315 (citing Glassman v. Arlington Cty., 628 F. 3d 140, 146 (4th Cir. 2010)).
 Id. at 315 (citing Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 255 (1963)).
 Id. at 317.
 Id. at 316 (citing Cty. of Alleghany v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 592–94 (1989)).
 Id. at 317 (citingLee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 598–99 (1992)).
 Id. at 317–18.
 Id. at 318.
 Id. at 319 (citingGreater Balt. Ctr. for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Mayor of Balt., 879 F. 3d 101, 107 (4th Cir. 2018)).
 Id. (citing Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 266 (1988)).
 Id. (citing C.N. v. Ridgewood Bd. of Educ., 430 F. 3d 159, 187 (3d Cir. 2005)).