By Hally Hall-I Chu
Many schools have role-playing exercises designed to help students better understand the subjects they portray. Pretend to be Galileo and write down how you feel when accused for something you know to be right. Get into the head of Robert E. Lee and describe what happened at the Seven Days Battle. Be a parent for a week, carry around a plastic baby with programmed infant responses. Role-playing as a teaching method is not new, and is, on the whole, regarded as a favorable method of creative teaching.
But what happens when role-playing steps into religious territory? What if, for a period of three weeks, students are encouraged by a teacher to adopt a Muslim name, to memorize Muslim proverbs, recite passages from the Qur’an, and to experience fasting by giving up candy or television for the duration of the unit?
In the eyes of the federal court, this specific method of religious role-playing — in Eklund v. Byron — would not be considered an “overt religious exercise.” The recent decision on November 17 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision made two years ago that ruled in the school’s favor. According to The Contra Costa Times article on Friday, November 18, the Appellate ruling means that, “Christian students and parents cannot sue a school district where some seventh-graders pretended to be Muslims for three weeks during a course in world history.”
The basis of this case goes back four years, to a history teacher’s curriculum for the state-required Muslim unit. To teach her students about Islam, Brooke Carlin of Excelsior Middle School, a public school in Byron, California, used a role-playing curriculum established by a private publisher for her seventh graders, encouraging them to participate while giving every student the choice to opt out. Carlin no longer teaches at Excelsior Middle School, and the role-playing curriculum has not been used since the 2001-2002 academic year.
The Appellate court upheld the previous court ruling because it believed that Carlin’s role-playing activities were merely tools for teaching, not for indoctrinating. Since direct advocacy for Islam was not part of the role-play, no freedom of religious exercise was breached, nor was the religion establishment clause of the First Amendment violated.
But even though religious exercise is the basis on which the U.S. Court system based both of its rulings, it is not the main issue behind the case. Plaintiffs Tiffany and Jonas Eklund’s foremost contention with the school was on the grounds of the selectivity of religious simulations. In Tiffany Eklund’s own words when she first sued the school district in 2002, “It should be all or none.”
Selectivity is a necessary evil in America’s educational system. While it would be ideologically beneficial to have three-week units on all the world’s major cultural and religious systems, a 180-day school year is simply not long enough to accommodate role-playings on subjects such as Buddhism and Hinduism on top of state and federal requirements. The system was already selective from the top-down: California’s educational system required an Islam unit for all its public school districts, which automatically makes other cultural units less of a priority on the school curriculum than a unit that focuses on the culture and practices of Muslims.
A personal level of selectivity was also involved in Eklund v. Byron School District. Eklund’s argument may have been more compelling if she didn’t also keep quiet during the school’s role-playing unit on medieval history, which covered the role of Christianity’s impact on society and during which her own son, Chase Eklund, role-played as a priest. Why wasn’t there protest against “indoctrination” of Christianity?
The irony of Eklund’s own selectivity was not picked up on by the media. The Contra Costa Times mentioned the medieval history unit in a history-of-the-case article dated November 13, four days before the Appellate Court was to make its decision. Its November 18 article on the ruling mentioned Eklund only in relation to Edward White, the Eklunds’ legal representative. Other articles published in the wake of the November 17 decision focused only on religious exercise as the central issue of the case.
The real issue here is selectivity — including Eklund’s own selectivity — of a school district trying to make a required school unit fun for its students, and of a pair of parents’ silence on one form of role-playing and vocal protest against another.
Hally Hall-I Chu is a writer living in New York City.