A legal group and six parents have filed a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of a San Diego Unified School District plan to protect Muslim students from bullying.
"It's our position that the anti-bullying policies should protect all students regardless of ethnicity and affiliation, and they shouldn't be singling out any religious group for special treatment, as they seem to be doing here," said Charles LiMandri, president and chief council for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which filed the lawsuit in federal court Tuesday on behalf of the parents.
In April, trustees in the districts voted to create a policy that would protect Muslim students from bullying by, among other steps, increasing lessons about Islam.
Students already learn about Islam and other religions as part of a social studies curriculum set by the state, but additional lessons could be added to create a better understanding of the religion, district staff members explained.
LiMandri and others who have objected to the policy said they are concerned the lessons could cross the line separating church and state.
The anti-bullying policy is part of a larger effort the district has adopted to make campuses safe for all students. Anti-bullying policies also have been created for LGBT students and students who are Native American and Latino.
The latest anti-bullying step was the first to focus on a religion and was sparked by a 2015 Council for American-Islamic Relations Report that found 55 percent of American Muslim students surveyed in California had said they were bullied because of their religion.
The district didn't have data about how many of those incidents happened in its schools, but a report to the board in April did note that there were seven incidents of bullying between July 1 to Dec. 31, 2016, although it didn't specify which religion was targeted.
"That's a relatively small number and it does not warrant or justify a wholesale change in the school district or its curriculum," LiMandri said.
"It appears to us that this is a politically correct type of solution looking for a problem," he continued. "If Muslim students are being bullied, stop the bullying. But you don't need to implement a program that is favoring Muslim students or one religion over another."
LiMandri has been involved in other high-profile, cultural touchstone issues. He was vocal supporter of Proposition 8, the 2008 California initiative that banned same-sex marriage, which was later overturned in court. He'd also been defender of the cross on Mount Soledad.
Parents upset about an anti-bully effort to protect Muslim students held up signs calling for the policy to be rescinded at a school board meeting earlier this month.
No representative of the school district would comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, but others had previously addressed concerns with the policy some people had raised.
Stan Anjan, executive director of Family and Community Engagement at the district, has said the district is not favoring Muslim students, but trying to ensure they are given equal protection.
"San Diego Unified does not favor any religion over another," he wrote in an e-mail to The San Diego Union-Tribune in February. "We welcome all students from all faiths within our school community."
LiMandri said parents and his law firm have other problems with the district's actions, including its partnership with the Council for American-Islamic Relations, which he said has a mission "to change American society and advance radical Islam."
"Of particular concern is the School District's active collaboration with CAIR, which has longstanding, verified ties to radical Islam," LiMandri said in a statement released Tuesday.
LiMandri also wrote that several of CAIR's top executives have been convicted of terror-related crimes.
Hanif Mohebi, CAIR San Diego executive director, said he had not seen the lawsuit and did not respond to a request to address LiMandri's claims.
A CAIR website, however, did address what it referred to as a smear campaign against the organization.
"The short answer to this is guilt by association," the site stated about claims that some members have been involved with terrorist groups. "CAIR has hundreds of board members and employees and thousands of supporters. It would be illogical and unfair to hold CAIR responsible for the personal activities of all these people."
The CAIR website also argues that the organization repeatedly has condemned terrorism and is not associated with extremist, anti-American believes.
"CAIR's advocacy model is the antithesis of the narrative of anti-American extremists," the site reads. "Indeed, our track record of success solidly repudiates extremist arguments that Muslims cannot get fair treatment in our nation."
LiMandri said the lawsuit against the district is not asking for any monetary relief, although San Diego Unified could face a hefty legal fee if the case continues into a lengthy fight.
Since much of the policy still is being worked out, however, LiMandri said the case could easily be resolved if the district stops working with CAIR and instead works with parents to create an anti-bullying policy that protects all students and not just those of one faith.