San Diego Unified School District Settles Case Following Backlash Against Anti-Islamophobia Initiative

By:  Bria Burgamy

In July 2016, San Diego Unified School District (“the District”) began discussions with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (“CAIR”) to create an anti-Islamophobia initiative (“the Initiative”) in its schools. According to a presentation given at a District board meeting, the Initiative intended to “provide resources and strategies to support students during…Ramadan”; “review and vet materials related to Muslim culture and history”; “explore and engage in formal partnerships” [with CAIR]; and “provide…opportunities for staff related to awareness and advocacy for Muslim culture.”

In 2017, five families and two advocacy organizations (San Diego Asian Americans for Equality; Citizens for Quality Education) sued the District. Plaintiffs alleged the Initiative to be a violation of the First Amendment because it would result in both preferential treatment of Muslim students and government entanglement with religion.

Plaintiffs were represented by Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund (“FCDF”), an organization self-described as “a team of experienced trial lawyers who provide pro bono legal services and spearheads educational initiatives on issues related to religious freedom.” Two years after the lawsuit began, in March 2019, the parties settled the case. The settlement required the District to instead partner with the Anti-Defamation League to create “No Place for Hate” – a more general anti-bullying program.

In a statement made on behalf of the plaintiffs, vice president of San Diego Asian Americans for Equality, Frank Xu, said “Every child, regardless of their race or religion, should be able to attend school without fear of being harassed and bullied. We are pleased the District has agreed to take these steps to ensure that all students…are equally protected under the Constitution.”

Xu’s statement mirrors the “All Lives Matter” response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Yes, all lives do matter. Similarly, it is true students of all religious backgrounds deserve to feel safe and supported at school. But certain circumstances require special efforts to foster heightened awareness about groups of people who are not as safe or supported in American society as their white or non-Muslim counterparts.

America’s drastic increase in hate crimes targeting Muslims demonstrates its desperate need for anti-Islamophobic actions. Unsurprisingly, anti-Muslim hate crimes skyrocketed following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. According to Pew Research Center, the numbers dwindled in the following years – until 2015, when Muslims experienced a 67 percent increase in hate crimes from 2014. The issue continued to compound as hate crimes increased by 19 percent in 2016. To make matters worse, a 15 percent increase in 2017 marked the first ever three-year consecutive increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States.

America must not ignore the correlation between the recent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes and the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016. Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, the same year hate crimes against Muslims increased by 67 percent. While on the campaign trail and since taking office, Trump has legitimized discriminatory urges with powerful anti-Muslim rhetoric. Trump once suggested Syrian refugees entering the United States “could be ISIS. A 200,000-man army, maybe.” On a separate occasion, he claimed to have watched “thousands and thousands of [Muslims] cheering” as the World Trade Center crumbled in 2001. And since the election of Muslim Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, Trump has repeatedly attacked both women – portraying them as anti-Semitic and sympathetic to Muslim terrorists. Trump’s words often re-ignite the fear many felt immediately following 9/11.

Islamophobia is running rampant in the United States. Hate crimes are on the rise. The President himself consistently spews anti-Muslim rhetoric. Forty-two percent of Muslim parents say their children have been bullied at school because of their religious beliefs. This is why the District needed to take action to prevent Islamophobia. Lives are on the line. It is not enough to simply say “All Lives Matter” – efforts must be taken to ensure hateful and dangerous discrimination meets its end.

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