According to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the offensive content does not violate Free Exercise rights. A petition for certiorari was filed last week.
by Massimo Introvigne
Can a state include incorrect and offensive statements about a religion in its educational material, whose use is mandatory in public schools? The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a decision of September 3, 2020, in the case of California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials v. Torlakson, answered that “offensive content that does not penalize, interfere with, or otherwise burden religious exercise does not violate Free Exercise rights.” In the specific case, the judges deemed the content not “disparaging” or discriminatory, and rejected the testimony of an academic who had argued otherwise. But, even if the content had been “offensive,” the Court of Appeals maintained that including such material in school textbooks does not penalize the free exercise of religion.
The question goes well beyond the specific religion offended, Hinduism, and on February 16 a petition for certiorari was filed with the Supreme Court. It would be indeed interesting to have a Supreme Court decision on this matter.
The State of California Board of Education publishes something called the “History-Social Science Content Standards” and the “History-Social Science Framework”, to which public schools in the state should mandatorily adhere. They discuss inter alia world religions, and put the Board in trouble before. For instance, Jews obtained the removal of a reference to the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, which was regarded as offensive to Jewish clergy. Muslims successfully protested against the statement that “Muslim leaders forced Hindus to convert” after the Mughal invasion of India, and the sentence was removed.
However, the Board refused to accommodate claims by Hindus, and a coalition of Hindu parents was formed under the name California Parents for Equalization of Educational Materials. They sued the Board, but lost. Hence, their petition for the Supreme Court to intervene.
The Hindu parents challenge the non-problematic adoption in the materials of the so-called Aryan invasion theory, according to which fair-skinned Aryan peoples invaded India, and were largely responsible for the creation of the Hindu religion. In this crude form, the theory is certainly not supported by contemporary scholars, and the Hindu parents call it “racist, colonialist, and erroneous.”
The California materials go on describing “Brahmanism” as the religion of the higher Aryan priestly caste, and how it evolved into “Hinduism.” Here again, extremely complicated and controversial historical facts, on which many different theories exist, are reduced to a simplistic scheme. The conclusion offered in the California materials direct the attention of the students to the caste system and its negative social effects as a main feature of Hinduism.
Finally, the parents also contest the representation of the Bhagavad Gita as the main and normative sacred scripture of Hinduism, and in fact the only Hindu scripture mentioned in the California materials, something that has also been challenged by contemporary scholars as a myth created by orientalist Western observers and some neo-Hindu currents in India.
While it is true that students are not college professors, and cannot be requested to go deep into scholarly controversies, the fact remains that among competing narratives about Hindu origins, one has been selected that many Hindus find offensive, without informing the students that alternative views exist. The Hindu parents claim that Christianity and other religions are presented in the educational materials in a more accurate and respectful way. It is a delicate matter, and one the Supreme Court would do well to settle.