Cindy Marten
San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego Unified recently settled a lawsuit targeting its planned – and later shelved – anti-Islamophobia efforts, bringing an end to a multi-year legal battle in which parents and other groups accused the school district of seeking to give Muslim students special treatment.

The district, which did not admit any liability, agreed as part of the deal to circulate information to school leaders describing “limits on the conduct of public school officials as it relates to religious activity.”

The case, filed in 2017, drew the attention of some right-wing politicians and organizations, sparking anti-Muslim comments by the likes of Rep. Duncan Hunter.

Meanwhile, the settlement comes amid renewed focus on Islamophobia worldwide in the aftermath of mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand that left 50 dead. Locally, Muslims were deeply disturbed by a fire set at a mosque in Escondido Sunday morning in which the suspect left a note referencing the New Zealand terrorist attacks.

How it All Began

In July 2016, the San Diego Unified’s school board directed staff to develop an anti-Islamophobia initiative. Then in April 2017, the board voted to adopt action steps related to the initiative in response to what it claimed were increased instances of Islamophobia sparked by President Donald Trump’s campaign.

Soon after, the plaintiffs filed their federal suit, seeking to block the adoption of the initiative. They argued in part that there was no Muslim bullying crisis, but rather the initiative was a pretext to establish the district’s preference for Muslim students in violation of the First Amendment.

They also alleged that the district’s relationship with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, known as CAIR, was unlawful. They sought to halt any formal partnership between those two groups.

In response to concerns raised by parents and the lawsuit, the school district decided to instead team with the Anti-Defamation League to implement a broader anti-bullying initiative, known as “No Place for Hate.”

The lawsuit continued, however. In September 2018, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction on all grounds.

“Plaintiffs do not argue nor present evidence regarding how an objective or reasonable observer would perceive the initiative as an endorsement of Islam and Muslims and rejection of other religions,” Bashant wrote.

The judge also said that while San Diego Unified admitted CAIR had provided guidance on preventing bullying against Muslim students, the plaintiffs’ allegations that the district’s anti-Islamophobia action steps were the product of close collaboration with CAIR was speculation that was “not credibly supported.”

The Settlement

The memo San Diego Unified circulated to area superintendents and school principals in early March as part of the settlement, which was filed in court last week, was titled “Religion in Education.” It noted that while the First Amendment does not prohibit the study of religion, it requires such content to be presented in a manner that does not promote one religion over another.

“Educators should treat each religion with equal respect, with the time and attention spent discussing each religion being proportionate to its impact on history and human development and the material presented in its historical context,” the guidance stated.

The memo also said guest speakers from religious organizations are not permitted to make presentations to students on religious topics.

The plaintiffs in the case were five families and two organizations, San Diego Asian Americans for Equality Foundation and Citizens for Quality Education San Diego.

They were represented by the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a Rancho Santa Fe-based group whose chief counsel is Charles LiMandri. He is best known for his pro bono legal work to ensure the Mt. Soledad Cross in La Jolla could remain amid constitutional challenges.

As for the settlement in the anti-Islamophobia case, the defense fund said its clients were thrilled.

“From the beginning, they just wanted to make sure that the school district isn’t even giving the appearance that it is preferring one religious group to another,” said Daniel Piedra, the defense fund’s executive director.

Piedra also said his clients were pleased that the only anti-bullying program the school district will implement moving forward will be “holistic, broad-based and won’t single out any religious sect.”

“The settlement speaks for itself,” San Diego Unified spokeswoman Maureen Magee wrote in an email.

Both sides agreed to cover their own attorneys’ fees.

Hunter, Others Enter the Fray

From the beginning, the case became a cause célèbre in some corners of the right-wing internet. Sites like the Daily Caller and World Net Daily breathlessly tracked the case with headlines like “Judge to Hear Alleged Islamic Takeover of U.S. Schools.”

The same week as Bashant’s October ruling, Hunter referenced San Diego Unified during a campaign appearance in Ramona.

“You have radical Islamist propaganda being pushed on the kids in our San Diego school district,” Hunter said, according to Times of San Diego. “Have you seen that? They put them on prayer rugs and they say: We gotta honor every religion.”

The comments, unsupported by evidence, came during the Alpine Republican’s campaign against Ammar Campa-Najjar in which Hunter repeatedly used anti-Islamic rhetoric and was said to have run “the most anti-Muslim campaign in the country.” (Hunter, who prevailed in the race, is facing federal campaign finance charges.)

More recently, a group called Understanding the Threat posted news of the settlement on its website.

The organization says that its primary concern is “threats to the Republic and the West in general from the Global Islamic Movement.”

It called the San Diego settlement “a big win for the students at San Diego Unified School District, and UTT hopes many other school districts will follow suit.”

Meanwhile, the new executive director of CAIR-San Diego criticized the lawsuit and some of the commentary surrounding it.

Dustin Craun argued the case was driven by the so-called “Islamophobia Network” that receives millions of dollars annually to produce and spread falsehoods about Islam and Muslims.

“That type of misinformation has produced white supremacist hatred like the deadly type we just saw in New Zealand,” Craun said.

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