Chatham schools are "promoting" Islam and use materials that "call to the children" to convert, according to a complaint filed by one student's mother.
Libby Hilsenrath filed a complaint and request for jury trial with Judge Kevin McNulty in U.S. District Court in Newark. The complaint alleges her son was required to accept lessons and homework assignments in his seventh-grade World Cultures and Geography class that contained "religious teachings of Islam presented, not as beliefs, but as facts."
Hilsenrath particularly objected to an assignment to view what she described as a "conversion video" posted on YouTube that she claims is "an explicit and direct call to the children for conversion to the religion of Islam."
"This conversion video, replete with biased, chastising statements encouraging the students at Chatham Middle School, including (her son), to follow the Quran and become Muslim, concluded with a direct and explicit call for the children to convert to Islam," she alleges in thecomplaint. The video, the complaint reads, ended with: 'May God help us all find the true faith, Islam. Ameen."
The School District of the Chathams, serving Chatham Borough and Township, and Chatham Board of Education are named as defendants. Superintendent Michael Lasusa, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Chase, Chatham Middle School Principal Jill Gihorski, supervisor of social studies Steve Maher and social studies teachers Megan Keown and Christine Jakowski were named as defendants.
LaSusa declined comment on the pending litigation. School board attorney Matthew J. Giacobbe said the board had no comment on the pending litigation "other than to state 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."
Hilsenrath's attorney, Michael P. Hrycak of Westfield, filed the complaint. Kate Oliveri, attorney for the Thomas More Law Center, co-signed the complaint.
Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the nonprofit Thomas More Law Center, according to its website, follows a mission to "preserve America's Judeo-Christian heritage."
The center also vows to "defend the religious freedom of Christians; restore time-honored moral and family values; protect the sanctity of human life; promote a strong national defense and a free and sovereign United States of America."
"Christianity is the world's largest religion," the complaint states. "Despite this fact, defendants' so-called World Cultures and Geography class did not teach the students any of the tenets of Christianity or have the students read any portions of the Bible in any unit."
"The Board of Education and other defendants are waging a war against the religious protections afforded by the First Amendment," Oliveri said. "They attack religious liberty by enticing young school children with a direct call to convert to Islam and providing a step-by-step guide on how to effect that conversion. The Thomas More Law Center will fight to protect these children, including Mrs. Hilsenrath's son, from such an atrocious violation of the Constitution."
Hilsenrath could not be reached for comment through either attorney. Oliveri said the center was advising her not to comment publicly about the matter.
Hilsenrath and Nancy Meyer, another mother of a Chatham student, presented similar arguments to the school board during a meeting in February 2017.
At that meeting, according to the complaint, Hilsenrath argued that "the conversion video and the pillars video promote the religion of Islam. In addition, she expressed concern that other religions, including Christianity and Judaism, were not covered in the class. LaSusa indicated he reviewed the entire curriculum and vigorously defended and approved of the curriculum."
"The inclusion of instruction about religious and cultural issues and themes in our curriculum has been a subject of discussion recently," Lasusa posted on the district website after that meeting. "Central to our mission as educators is to help students develop understandings of the themselves, others, and the world around them — something achievable only through deliberate work with material and topics previously unfamiliar to students. 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."
Hilsenrath and Meyer took their argument to Fox News, where they were interviewed on air by Tucker Carlson.
"It crosses the line because it teaches one religion and not all others," Hilsenrath told Carlson.
Hilsenrath also alleged during that interview she and Meyers were subsequently "labeled as bigots" in public and on social media.
Meyer is not mentioned in Hilsenrath's complaint.
Hilsenrath is asking the court to declare the defendants violated the Constitutional rights of her and her son, and permanently enjoin them from "funding and implementing religious instruction that endorses Islam or that favors Islam over other religions or non-religion."
The lawsuit also seeks unspecified awards for violating their Constitutional rights, and for attorney fees, costs and expenses.