A Chatham mother has filed a federal lawsuit against school officials saying they forced her son to watch Islamic conversion videos and ignored the study of Christianity and Judaism, according to court documents.
The civil rights complaint, filed Tuesday, names Superintendent Michael LaSusa, Assistant Superintendent Karen Chase, Chatham Middle School Principal Jill Gihorski, Supervisor of Social Studies for the dictrict Steven Maher, and Social Studies Teachers Megan Keown and Christine Jakowski as defendants.
"The Board has 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," Chatham Board of Education Attorney Matthew J. Giacobbe said in a written statement.
Libby Hilsenrath filed the lawsuit on behalf of her 12-year-old son, C.H., a 7th grader at Chatham Middle School, and is asking the court to grant a permanent injuction, nominal damages and litigation costs. It also says that C.H. has suffered irreparable harm which warrants declaratory and injunctive relief as well as nominal damages for the loss of constitutional rights.
She is represented by attorney Michael Hrycak, a Westfield-based attorney who is affiliated with the Thomas More Law Center, a national nonprofit conservative Christian law firm.
"What would people say if our public schools taught Christianity as the true faith?," said Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel for Thomas More, in a statement on the law center's website. "Chatham Middle School made a mockery of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause."
Hilsenrath says in the lawsuit that teachers required students of the World Cultures and Geography course, "under the coercive threat of lower grades and failed assignments," to view all materials posted on the Google Classroom.
On or about Jan. 23, 2017, Hilsenrath was reviewing her son's assignments for the Middle East North Africa Unit in Geography class when she discovered students were assigned to watch a five-minute long "Intro to Islam Video."
The video, according to the lawsuit, "seeks to convert viewers to Islam and is filled with the religious teachings of Islam, presented not as beliefs, but as facts."
The lawsuit cites statements made in the video, including "Allah is the one God;" "The Quran is a perfect guide for humanity;" "Muslims created a tradition of unsurpassable splendor;" and concludes with "May God help us all find the true faith, Islam."
The text slides are set to a musical version of the poem "Qaseedah Burdah," which the lawsuit says, describes "Christians and Jews as 'infidels' and (praises) Muhammad in gruesome detail for slaughtering them."
C.H. and other students were also forced to watch at home, without supervision, a video on the pillars of Islam.
The video depicts two cartoon boys, one Muslim (Yusuf) and one non-Muslim (Alex) playing soccer when the Islamic call to prayer sounds, sparking a dialogue about the five pillars of Islam. Yusuf goes pray, leaving Alex sad. Then Yusuf returns and invites him to come see how he prays.
It ends with a slide referring viewers to a United Kingdom-based website and email address where they can arrange a mosque tour or order an information pack about Islam.
Because these "doctrinal messages" calling for conversion to Islam were presented in video "with vivid images and text, they possess greater communicative impact and are more likely to be accepted by the students viewing them than information that is spoken in a classroom or even written in a book," the lawsuit alleges.
The videos don't include a disclaimer from the school district saying they don't represent their views or opinions, the lawsuit says.
Students also were required to complete a fill-in-the-blank version of the shahada, the Islamic conversion creed and prayer. The worksheet contained a link to a webpage that explains "the ease with which they could convert to become Muslim," the lawsuit says.
The study of Christianity and Judaism, both developed in the Middle East and North Africa, were not covered in the class, the lawsuit says.
Hilsenrath began complaining about the lesson plans in February 2017 in an email to district leaders and in person at Board of Education meetings. She and another parent appeared on Fox News Channel's Tucker Carlson Feb. 20, 2017 to discuss the issue.
School officials, meanwhile defended the curriculum, including during a March 6, 2017 board of education meeting that was attended by a standing-room only crowd. Superintendent LaSusa declined to comment on the lawsuit but referred NJ Advance Media to a statement he made in a February 2017 newsletter to parents where he devoted an entire page to what he acknowledged was a "subject of discussion" within the district -- teaching about religion.
"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," LaSusa wrote.
He continued: "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."