“She’s in the final semester of her senior year, and as it stands right now, she’s going to have to go through that life experience without her dad there,” said Kate Oliveri, a lawyer from the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center who is representing the Wood family.
The dispute dates to October 2014, when Wood’s daughter showed him several assignments for her 11th grade World History class at La Plata High in Charles County, Md.
She had been asked to memorize the Five Pillars of Islam. She had been asked to write and recite the shahada, the Muslim statement of faith: There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. She had been taught, according to school papers submitted to federal court, that most Muslims’ faith is “stronger than the average Christian.”
The lessons also taught that Islam was a “peaceful religion,” court papers say, and that “jihad” is a “holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline.” Wood is a Marine veteran who had lost two buddies in combat in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.
The school wasn’t just teaching Islam but was promoting it, it seemed to Wood, and in a way that amounted to an assault on his family’s Christian faith.
When Wood called to complain about the assignments and request alternative work for his daughter, school officials issued a no-trespass order against him. Wood has not been allowed to set foot on the campus of La Plata High since October 2014.
The order, which Wood’s lawyers posted online, says that Wood “made verbal threats against the school.” The legal battle now centers on whether the school system unfairly punished Wood for speaking out.
In court papers, Wood says he never threatened physical harm against the school or its staff. Instead, he said, he threatened to take his concerns public by going to the media and to lawyers.
The dispute turned into a legal battle last month, when Wood and his wife, Melissa, sued the Charles County school system, alleging that La Plata High’s lessons on Islam violated their daughter’s civil and constitutional rights.
“The First Amendment prohibits the promotion of the religion of Islam over other faiths, such as Christianity or Judaism, in our public schools,” says the complaint, filed in U.S District Court in Maryland.
Katie O’Malley-Simpson, spokeswoman for the Charles County school system, said she could not comment on pending litigation. But when Wood first raised concerns about the assignments in 2014, the school system released a statement clarifying what students learn in its World History classes.
The unit to which Wood objected is meant to teach about Middle Eastern empires and the role that Islam — along with politics, culture, economics and geography — played in the history and development of those empires, the statement said. The course covers other religions in other units; students study Christianity when they learn about the Renaissance, for example, and Hinduism and Buddhism in units about India and China.
Now Wood is asking the court to rescind the no-trespass order, alleging that the ban violates his First Amendment rights to speak about and advocate for his daughter’s activities at a public school. School officials banned him only because they disagreed with him and “wanted to quash criticism of their pro-Islamic curriculum,” he argued in a motion filed on Monday.
O’Malley-Simpson said she had not yet seen Wood’s motion asking the court to rescind the ban, and therefore could not comment on it.
The dispute is reminiscent of a controversy in rural Augusta County, Va., that drew national attention in December after a teacher assigned a calligraphy lesson that asked students to write the shahada in Arabic. Objections from local parents went viral on social media and cable news, triggering a slew of messages that didn’t specifically threaten students but nevertheless persuaded officials to close the county schools.
Parents elsewhere in the country, including in Tennessee and Georgia, also have raised concerns about lessons that center on Islam.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the Maryland lawsuit is “an example of the anti-Islam campaign that’s being waged nationwide in schools.”
“It’s just this hysterical knee-jerk negative reaction to anything to do with Islam or Muslims in our society,” Hooper said. “To merely say the shahada, the declaration of faith, or to understand what Muslims believe — it in no way converts you to Islam, that’s a ridiculous notion. Islam is a belief system. You’ve got to believe in it or you’re not a Muslim.”
Experts say that it’s especially critical for children to learn about Islam and other world religions now, as fears of terrorism linked to jihad have become an increasingly dominant part of the country’s political debate.
“To be an educated person, to be a citizen, to be part of the global conversation, to be engaged in our world, religious literacy is essential,” Charles Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center, told The Washington Post in December. “How are we going to live with one another in one of the most religiously diverse societies in the world without understanding one another?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling of John Kevin Wood’s last name. The story has been updated.