CHATHAM, NJ - Board president Jill Critchley Weber said that the School District of the Chathams had received a dismissal of a lawsuit against it on Nov. 12, two and a half years after it was initiated by a Chatham parent, in an announcement made at the Chatham Board of Education meeting Monday night.
"The judge's decision is a complete vindication of the board, the district administration and its teachers," Weber said.
The issue first arose at a Feb. 6, 2017 BOE meeting when Chatham Middle School parents questioned the emphasis being put on the teaching of the religion of Islam in a 7th grade social studies class.
Weber, in giving her summary of the judgment on Monday night, said that the questions to the board were "not unusual,", but said that things changed when the Chatham moms appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight.
"Ms. (Libby) Hilsenrath went on national television on Feb. 20th and made some patently false statements about the district," Weber said. "Specifically, that our curriculum crossed the line because it teaches one religion and not all others. Another quote, 'no other religion is taught'.
"It was that last statement that (caused) dozens and dozens of hate mail. violent, vulgar mail to the district, violent threats against our employees, violent threats against our employees' families. Death threats against our employees, physical harm to our buildings and this went on for a while. One threat was so credible that the federal authorities had to get involved."
At the time, Chatham Superintendent Michael LaSusa received extra police protection because of the threats.
"We had to post police outside the middle school and I forget how many weeks we had a police officer stationed outside Dr. LaSusa's office," Weber said. "Some of the threats were benign and nonsensical, but many of them were violent and vulgar."
Board president Jill Critchley Weber announces the dismissal of the lawsuit
Weber said that in May of 2020, the district asked for a summary judgment in the case, which was granted "with prejudice" by U.S. District Court Judge Kevin McNulty.
Hilsenrath, who filed the lawsuit, was in attendance at the BOE meeting on Monday night and said: "The school removed the videos (which she claimed proselytized conversion to Islam) from their curriculum."
She referred all other questions to her attorney.
The videos used in the "World Cultures and Geography" course were removed from the curriculum and are no longer included in the instruction.
"Given the level of disruption that year that we were receiving, we used other materials to teach the same exact principles," LaSusa said.
The School District of the Chathams had to pay $10,000, which is its deductible for its liability insurance, to defend against the suit, but Weber said that the suit cost "millions" to litigate.
In addition to the deductible, the district incurred other costs, according to Peter Daquila, school business administrator/board secretary, such as added police protection.
Board member Michelle Clark asked that Daquila report at a future meeting the total costs absorbed by the district so that the information could be passed onto the taxpayers.
The press release from the School District of the Chathams can be read below:
“FEDERAL DISTRICT COURT JUDGE REJECTS ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE CHALLENGE BY PARENT TO THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF THE CHATHAMS’ INCLUSION OF INSTRUCTION ABOUT ISLAM IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL SOCIAL STUDIES CURRICULUM”
On November 12, 2020, a Federal District Court Judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a parent of a former Chatham Middle School student against the School District of the Chathams and several District employees alleging a violation of her child’s constitutional rights under a section of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which prohibits government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The Complaint filed by Libby Hilsenrath on January 23, 2018 in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey alleged that, during the 2016-2017 school year, the curriculum and materials of the Seventh Grade World Cultures and Geography Course promoted or favored the religion of Islam at the expense of Christianity and Judaism. Libby Hilsenrath had also appeared on a national television show on February 2017 to claim that the District did not teach about any other religion except for Islam.
The District subsequently filed an Answer to Ms. Hilsenrath’s Complaint denying these allegations and at all times denied that its curriculum or any of the materials utilized to teach the students enrolled in the Seventh Grade World Cultures and Geography course had violated any student’s right to be free from religious coercion or parent’s right to raise their children in accordance with their own religious beliefs. Both prior to and during the course of litigation, the District steadfastly maintained, through its defense attorneys at Cleary Giacobbe Alfieri and Jacobs, LLC, that the curriculum and materials for social studies instruction throughout all grade levels were, at all times, in compliance with the Board’s policies regarding instruction about religion, with the New Jersey Department of Education’s learning standards that require students
to learn about and to “compare and contrast” several world religions by completion of the eighth grade, and most importantly, did not have the primary effect of endorsing or advancing any one religion.
After more than two and a half years of discovery, motions for summary judgment were filed on May 8, 2020 by both parties. On November 12, 2020, the District received a decision on those motions for summary judgment from the United States District Court Judge Kevin McNulty. Judge McNulty ruled that the challenged materials did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment under the well-known Lemon v. Kurtzman test. More specifically, the Judge determined that the challenged materials and curriculum which included the study about Islam along with other religions during the year-long seventh grade World Cultures and Geography class had a valid, secular purpose to educate students about the world’s major religions and that the Board did not exceed its educational mandate. The Judge also determined that the curriculum of the course did not, in the context of a larger study of world cultures and geography, convey a message favoring Islam over other religions. Based on these determinations, the Judge granted the District’s motion for summary judgment resulting in a dismissal of the complaint filed by Ms. Hilsenrath in its entirety.
The Judge’s decision is a complete vindication of the Board, District Administrators, and its teachers to whom the education of the children living in the School District of the Chathams is entrusted. Informed of the dismissal, Superintendent Michael LaSusa and the Board expressed their sincere gratitude to Judge McNulty for the time, skill and attention given to the decision granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment in this case.