Wake Forest Law Review

By Caroline Hamilton and Alex Prunka

During the 2014­–15 school year, Caleigh Wood was an eleventh grade student at La Plata High School in Charles County, Maryland.[1]  Wood was required to take a world history course as a part of the school’s curriculum, featuring a small, five-day unit entitled “The Muslim World.”[2]  This unit was designed to “explore, among other things, formation of Middle Eastern empires including the basic concepts of the Islamic faith and how it along with politics, culture, economics, and geography contributed to the development of those empires.”[3]  Wood took issue with two aspects of the Muslim World unit: (1) the PowerPoint slide which stated “most Muslim’s [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian [sic]” and (2) a worksheet summarizing the lesson that required her to complete certain information about the Islamic faith.[4]

Wood sued the defendants Evelyn Arnold, Shannon Davis, the Board of Education of Charles County, and the Charles County Public Schools.  In Wood v. Arnold,[5] she asserted two claims: (1) the defendants violated the Establishment Clause by “impermissibly endors[ing] and advanc[ing] the Islamic religion;” and (2) that defendants violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment by requiring her to complete the shahada assignment thereby depriving her “of the right to be free from government compelled speech.”[6]  The United States District Court for the District of Maryland granted summary judgment to the defendants on all claims, and Wood appealed.

Plaintiff’s Arguments

Wood’s first claim was based on the Establishment Clause. She argued that the defendants endorsed a view of Islam over Christianity, which violates the Establishment Clause[7] based on the comparative faith statement that read “Most Muslim’s faith is stronger than the average Christian.”[8]  Wood also believed that the assignment which required to fill in the blanks regarding the lesson plan impermissibly advanced Islam and compelled Wood to deny the existence of her God.[9]  Wood argued that the religious endorsement could not be overcome by the secular purposes alleged by the defendants.[10]

Regarding Wood’s Free Speech Clause challenge, she contended that the defendants violated her right to free speech by requiring her to fill in the sentence “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”[11] on the after lesson worksheet.  From her position, Wood believed that this worksheet forced her to confess, by written word and deed, her faith in Allah.[12]  Having been raised in a strong Christian household, Wood took offense to what she and her parents perceived as forced proclamation of Islamic beliefs.[13]

Defendant’s Arguments

In response to Wood’s Establishment Clause claim, defendants argued the unit satisfied the first prong of the Lemon test because the purpose of the Muslim unit was primarily secular and that the single statement made on the power point rose to a level of promoting Islam.[14]  In regards to the second prong of the Lemon test, the defendants emphasized the importance of analyzing whether the school was acting to promote a particular religion from an objective standpoint and that the District Court was correct in not taking into account specific, subjective statements made by certain school officials.[15]  Finally, the defendants patently rejected the theory that the comparative faith statement and the fill in the blank worksheet could lead a reasonable juror to find excessive entanglement between the school and religion.[16]  It simply does not rise to the level of requiring Wood to profess Islam or denounce Christianity, nor does it in any way bear resemblance to a statement made by an evangelical.

In response to Wood’s Free Speech Clause challenge, the defendants argue that the classroom is not a public forum worthy of the full battery of First Amendment protections.[17]  Additionally, defendants argue that Wood was never asked to profess her belief in Islam but rather, was asked to showcase her understanding of the Islamic religion in the context of a world history class.  Thus, the forum of the classroom in conjunction with the type of “compelled” speech indicate that the fill in the blank worksheet does not violated her First Amendment rights.[18]

The Court’s Opinion

The Court affirmed the District Court’s granting of summary judgement in favor of the defendants on both counts.  The court acknowledged that the proper analysis for an Establishment Clause issue is the Lemon test,[19] which asks (1) whether the challenged material has some secular purpose; (2) whether the principal effect of government action is to suggest government preference for a particular religious view or for religion in general; and (3) whether the government action created an excessive entanglement between government and religion.[20]  However, the court first had to decide the relevant scope of inquiry—whether the challenged materials should be considered in isolation or whether they should be considered within the broader context of the world history class.  Following circuit court precedent, the court held that it was proper to consider the challenged content in the context of the world history class.[21]  Here, the court found that the challenged religious content did not offend any of the three Lemon test prongs.

The first prong imposes a “fairly low hurdle,” merely requiring the government to show that it had a plausibly secular purpose.[22]  So long as the proffered secular purpose is genuine and not a sham, the purpose will satisfy the first prong of the Lemon test.  Here, the court determined that the purpose of the two pieces of challenged content did have a primarily secular purpose.  The court noted that the Supreme Court has recognized the value in studying religion on a comparative basis.[23]  Neither the comparative faith statement being challenged or the shahada worksheet indicate a religious purpose; rather, the school had a predominantly secular purpose in teaching world history, and the subsequent shahada worksheet was in line with the academic work to be expected after a lesson plan.[24]  Thus, the court was quickly satisfied that the school was acting with a predominantly secular purpose.

Turning to the second prong of the Lemon test, the court asked whether a reasonable, informed observer would conclude that by its actions, the government has endorsed a particular religion.[25]  In analyzing this prong, courts assume that the reasonable observer is aware of the context surrounding the government action.  The court found that neither of the challenged statements indicated that the school endorsed Islam or that the school was forcing its students to endorse and participate in Islamic practices.  It distinguished the challenged content from a situation in which a school forces students to pray, which would offend the Lemon test.[26]  In fact, the challenged content was integrated into the secular curriculum and only constituted a minor part of the Muslim unit, which was only a minor part of the world history class.  Thus, the court concluded that “common sense” indicates that the school was not endorsing any religious beliefs through either of the challenged content.[27]

In dealing with the third prong, the court examined whether the government action led to an excessive entanglement between government and religion.  The court determined that they “need not dwell long on the entanglement prong” because the comparative faith statement and shahada assignment neither advanced nor inhibited religion.[28]  The secular nature of the content, in conjunction with the minor role it played in the context of the world history class, led the court to quickly find there was no entanglement issues caused by the comparative faith statement or the shahada assignment. 

The court then turned to Wood’s Free Speech Clause challenge.  Although the court acknowledged that compelled speech usually gets rigorous scrutiny,[29] this presumption needs to be balanced with the reality that students’ rights in public schools are not “automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.”[30]  The court here agreed with the Third Circuit’s approach, which stated that, in the educational context, students sometimes are forced to speak when they would rather not and that does not offend the First Amendment.[31]  From this basis, the court went on to find that the shahada assignment did not require Wood to profess or accept the tenants of Islam or take part in any devotion practice related to Islam.  Therefore, Wood’s right against compelled speech was not violated.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in a relatively short opinion, affirmed the granting of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.  The court did not find merit on either of Wood’s assertions that the comparative faith statement or the shahada worksheet violated the Establishment Clause or the Free Speech Clause.  The content in question was a minor part of a small unit about the Muslim world in the context of a world history class.  The purpose for this content is clearly secular in nature and would not have led a reasonable juror to find that Wood’s rights were violated.


[1] Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308, 312 (4th Cir. 2019).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 312–13.

[5] 915 F.3d 308 (4th Cir. 2019).

[6] Id. at 313.

[7] The Establishment Clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” U.S. Const. amend. I, cl. 1.

[8] Wood, 919 F.3d at 313.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 318.

[12] Id. at 319.

[13] Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint ¶¶ 34–40, Wood v. Arnold, (No. 8:16-cv-00239-GJH), 2016 WL 6136525 (D. Md. Oct. 11, 2016).

[14] Corrected Brief for Defendants-Appellants at 13, Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308 (No. 18-1430) (4th Cir. 2019).

[15] Id. at 19–21.

[16] Id. at 22–24.

[17] Id. at 25–26.

[18] See id. at 31.

[19] Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308, 314 (4th Cir. 2019).

[20] Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).

[21] Wood, 915 F.3d at 314–15 (citingLambeth v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 271 (4th Cir. 2005)). 

[22] Id. at 315 (citing Glassman v. Arlington Cty., 628 F. 3d 140, 146 (4th Cir. 2010)).  

[23] Id. at 315 (citing Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 255 (1963)).

[24] Id. at 317.

[25] Id. at 316 (citing Cty. of Alleghany v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 592–94 (1989)).

[26] Id. at 317 (citingLee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 598–99 (1992)).

[27] Id. at 317–18.

[28] Id. at 318.

[29] Id. at 319 (citingGreater Balt. Ctr. for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Mayor of Balt., 879 F. 3d 101, 107 (4th Cir. 2018)).

[30] Id. (citing Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 266 (1988)).

[31] Id. (citing C.N. v. Ridgewood Bd. of Educ., 430 F. 3d 159, 187 (3d Cir. 2005)).

WE, THE CITIZENS OF MARYLAND, TRUSTING IN GOD, THE SUPREME RULER OF THE UNIVERSE, PLEDGE FAITH IN OUR BROTHERS WHO GAVE THEIR ALL IN THE WORLD WAR TO MAKE THE WORLD SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY. THEIR MORTAL BODIES HAVE TURNED TO DUST. BUT THEIR SPIRIT LIVES TO GUIDE US THROUGH LIFE IN THE WAY OF GODLINESS, JUSTICE, AND LIBERTY.
WITH OUR MOTTO, “ONE GOD, ONE COUNTRY AND ONE FLAG,” WE CONTRIBUTE TO THIS MEMORIAL CROSS COMMEMORATING THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO HAVE NOT DIED IN VAIN.

By: Robert Tucci

On Wednesday, October 18, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in American Humanist Association v. Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission. Several residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland, along with the American Humanist Association (“AHA”) – a non-profit organization dedicated to upholding the founding principle of separation of church and state – brought suit against a Maryland government agency, claiming that the government’s maintenance of a 40-foot tall World War I Latin Cross monument violated the Establishment Clause. The district court granted summary judgment for the government, and the plaintiffs appealed. The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the decision of the lower court, finding that the Cross violated the second and third prongs of the Lemon test.

Facts and Procedural History

On September 28, 1919, several private organizers held a groundbreaking ceremony on land owned by the city of Bladensburg, Maryland, to begin erecting a giant 40-foot Latin Cross memorial. The Cross was built next to a pre-existing plaque which was placed to honor 49 World War I United States soldiers. To fund the construction of the Cross, the private organizers obtained funding from private donors. The donors were required to sign a pledge sheet, which recognized the existence of “one god” (text of pledge sheet above).

The private organizers ran out of money in 1922 to continue funding the project. As a result, a local post of the American Legion stepped in to continue fundraising and construction of the Cross. Several of the Legion’s fundraising and memorial services concerning the Cross, both before and after construction was completed, contained exclusively sectarian Christian activities. Such activities included prayers at invocations and benedictions, Sunday worship service, speaker-led prayers, and singing Christian hymns. The Legion completed construction in 1925, and placed the four-story tall Latin Cross in the median of a three-way highway intersection in Bladensburg.

On March 1, 1961, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (“Commission”), a Maryland government agency, obtained title to the Cross and the land beneath it. The Commission claimed it acquired the Cross for safety reasons due to the proximity of the Cross to a busy highway. Since 1961, the Commission has spent $117,000 to maintain and repair the Cross, with an additional $100,000 set aside in 2008 for future repairs.

The Cross is part of the Bladensburg Veterans Memorial Park. All other monuments in the park are ten feet tall or shorter, devoid of religious iconography, and located at least 200 feet from the Cross. The Legion’s symbol (a small star inscribed with “U.S.”) is attached near the top of the Cross, and an American flag resides near the Cross. The plaque honoring the 49 soldiers sits on an obscured corner on the Cross’s rectangular base, and has been weathered to the point of being illegible.

The AHA and several non-Christian residents of Prince George’s County, who faced multiple instances of unwelcome contact with the Cross while driving, filed suit against the Commission, claiming that the Cross amounts to government affiliation with Christianity. The AHA and residents sought a declaratory judgment that the Commission’s conduct violates the Establishment Clause and the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, an injunction enjoining the Commission from displaying the Cross on public property, nominal damages, and attorney’s fees and costs.

Both sides filed cross-motions for summary judgment, with the district court granting summary judgment to the Commission. The district court found that the Commission and Cross satisfied the three prong test set out in Lemon v. Kurtzman. The plaintiffs subsequently appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

Do Plaintiffs Have Standing to Sue?

The Court first analyzed the Commission’s argument that the plaintiffs lack standing to bring suit. The Commission contended that the plaintiffs had not “forgone any legal rights” as a result of the Commission’s conduct. The Court rejected this argument, stating that “[a]n Establishment Clause claim is justiciable even when plaintiffs claim noneconomic or intangible injury.” Specifically, the Court found that the non-AHA plaintiffs have standing due to their alleged unwelcome direct contact with the Cross, and that the AHA has standing to sue because an association can sue on behalf of its members if the members would also have standing to sue on their own.

Does Van Orden Control?

The Court then turned to the Commission’s argument that the holding in Van Orden v. Perry, rather than the Lemon test, should control. Van Orden dealt with a similar issue of whether a monument displaying the Ten Commandments on government property violated the Establishment Clause. The Court acknowledged that the plurality opinion in Van Orden is favorable to the Commission, but declined to follow it due to Justice Breyer’s controlling (and limiting) concurrence.

In his concurrence, Justice Breyer lays out several non-exhaustive factors for evaluating monuments eliciting both a secular and non-secular purpose, including: (1) the circumstances surrounding the monument’s placement; (2) its physical setting; and (3) the length of time it remains unchallenged. However, the Court noted that Justice Breyer reaffirmed Lemon by saying that it is a “useful guidepost[],” and remains a “more formal Establishment Clause test[].” Thus, the Court chose to apply the Lemon test, while giving due consideration to the Van Orden factors.

Does the Bladensburg Cross Satisfy the Lemon Test?

Next, the Court analyzed whether the Bladensburg Cross is constitutional under the Lemon test. A government display is constitutional under the Lemon test if it satisfies three prongs: (1) the display has a secular purpose; (2) the display does not have a “principle or primary effect” that advances, inhibits, or endorses religion; and (3) the display does not foster “an excessive entanglement between government and religion.” If the display violates even one prong, it is unconstitutional.

Secular Purpose

The Court held that the Cross satisfied the first prong of the Lemon test. The Court acknowledged that it is a fairly low burden to establish a secular purpose for a government display, because even if the display has “dual legitimate purposes” (one secular and one sectarian), it still satisfies the first prong of the Lemon test. The Commission articulated several secular reasons for displaying and maintaining the Cross, including ensuring safety near a busy highway, and the preservation of a significant war memorial. The Court found these to be legitimate secular reasons, thus finding that the Cross satisfied the first prong of the Lemon test.

Primary Effect

Next, the Court held the Cross violated the second prong of the Lemon test. The Court found the relevant question under the second prong to be “does the practice under review in fact convey a message of endorsement or disapproval of religion?” The Court stated that this question must be answered from the perspective of a “reasonable observer” – someone who “must be deemed aware of the history and context of the community and forum in which the religious speech takes place.” Therefore, the Court found that a detailed factual analysis of the Cross’ meaning, history, and secularizing elements was required to determine its primary effect.

Under the “meaning” inquiry, the Court concluded that the Latin cross is the “preeminent symbol of Christianity,” one that is not a symbol of any other religion. The court went on to say that even the Latin cross’ supposed secular symbology of death and memorialization is tied to the Christian sectarian teaching of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Further, the Court found the Latin cross differed from other religious monuments, like the Ten Commandments, as it is not tied to the United States’ history and government.

Turning to the “history” inquiry, the Court found that, while the history of Latin Cross’ in general favors the plaintiffs, the history of the Bladensburg cross does not favor either party over the other. The Court centered its analysis around the fact that the Cross has a “semisecular” history, as it has been the object of both sectarian Christian activities – including Christian prayers, Sunday services, and fundraising using the donor’s pledge above – and secular Veterans-focused ceremonies.

Finally, the Court determined that, while the Cross does contain a few secular elements, they are easily overshadowed by the sectarian ones. In coming to its conclusion, the Court cited the fact that the Cross is much larger than the rest of the monuments in the Bladensburg Veterans Memorial Park, is 200 feet or more from any of the other monument, and that the “immense size and prominence of the Cross necessarily ‘evokes a message of aggrandizement and universalization of religion, and not the message of individual memorialization and remembrance that is presented by a field of gravestones'” (referencing the Latin crosses in Arlington Cemetery).  Additionally, the Court emphasized the fact that the Christian iconography of the Cross was clearly visible to observers, while the secular symbols were hidden or obscured.

Ultimately, the Court concluded that a reasonable observer would “fairly understand the Cross to have the primary effect of endorsing religion,” as the factors above “collectively weigh in favor of concluding that the Cross endorses Christianity – not only above all other faiths, but also to their exclusion.” Thus, the Court held that the Cross violated the second prong of the Lemon test.

Excessive Entanglement

Lastly, the Court held that the Cross violated the third prong of the Lemon test. In coming to this determination, the Court said that excessive entanglement with religion “is a question of kind and degree,” and may include “pervasive monitoring or other maintenance by public authorities.” The Court found the Cross excessively entangles the government with religion for two reasons: (1) the Commission owns and maintains the Cross and the property it is displayed on, and (2) the Commission is displaying the “hallmark symbol of Christianity” in a very dominant and visible fashion that excludes all other religious iconography and tenants.

Conclusion

The Forth Circuit held that the Commission’s ownership and maintenance of the Bladensburg Cross violates the second and third prong of the Lemon test, and is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion under the Establishment Clause. The Court reversed the decision of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings.

church-188087__180

By Kayleigh Butterfield

On February 9, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the civil case Andon LLC v. City of Newport News. In this case, Andon, LLC, and Reconciling People Together in Faith Ministries, LLC (collectively, Plaintiffs) filed a complaint against the City of Newport News, Virginia (the City). Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that the City violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying Plaintiffs’ variance request that would permit them to use a specific property as a religious facility. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal for failure to state a claim, and its denial of Plaintiffs’ request to amend their complaint.

Church Faces Setback

Walter T. Terry Jr. formed Reconciling People Together in Faith Ministries, LLC (the congregation) in 2012. Terry began looking for a building for the congregation to use and eventually found a property for “lease or sale” by Andon, LLC. The City’s zoning ordinance for commercial properties, such as the one at issue, provided four conditions for properties to be used for a church or place of worship. One of the factors stated that no building may be “located within 100 feet of any side or rear property line which is zoned single-family residential.”

Knowing that the property did not meet the ordinance’s setback requirement, Plaintiff’s filed a request for a variance from the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). BZA ultimately denied the variance request. Plaintiffs then brought action under RLUIPA claiming that the denial imposed a substantial burden on Plaintiffs’ exercise of religion.

Dismissal Under 12(b)(6)

Reviewing the district court’s decision de novo, the Fourth Circuit relied heavily on its previous decision in Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County Council. In that case, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the plaintiffs successfully brought a substantial burden claim under RLUIPA, because the regulations at issue substantially pressured the plaintiffs to modify and then abandon their pre-existing plan to construct a church building. The Fourth Circuit distinguished Plaintiffs’ claim from Bethel by noting that Plaintiffs had no reasonable expectation that they could use the property for religious purposes. Rather, Plaintiffs knew that the City had an ordinance in place prohibiting such use. Thus, Plaintiffs assumed the risk when they entered into the lease agreement and applied for a variance instead of continuing to search for a usable property. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that Plaintiffs could not show any facts indicating that the burdens were not self-imposed.

Affirmed

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss with prejudice, along with the denial of Plaintiffs’ request to amend their complaint.