BYRON, Calif. — When Byron, Calif., public school teacher Brooke Carlin had her middle school students role-play Muslims, it stirred up a storm of parental complaints and a lawsuit.

But that was in January of 2002, with the 9/11 terrorist attacks fresh in the nation's mind.

Now, even Catholics are split on the issue.

Lawyers for parents Jonas and Tiffany Eklund told three judges of the 9th Federal Circuit Court what happened in the middle school that caused all the fuss.

Twelve-year-old students were given Muslim names and name tags that also displayed the star and crescent. They were issued instructions on Muslim piety, and asked to fast and complete other Muslim practices. They were required to recite a Muslim prayer, namely, “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.”

No comparable activities were used to teach other religions.

The case has been in court before.

It was decided in the Byron Union school district's favor in December 2003, and it came up for appeal in late October.

The Thomas More Law Center took on the case when the Eklunds’ protests about their children's inclusion in Islamic activities fell on deaf ears.

Thomas More is the Ann Arbor, Mich., based legal advocacy organization dedicated to defending Christian rights, family values and the sanctity of human life.

The center claimed Carlin had gone beyond instruction to indoctrination, violating the constitutional rights of students Chase and Samantha Eklund, who are Christian.

Edward White III of the Thomas More Law Center said he hopes the court will be motivated to overturn the lower court's ruling out of fear of a decision boomeranging on them.

“I told the judges,” said White, “that if this decision weren't reversed, then the Thomas More Center would be back later to argue that every religion should be given the same treatment, that students should be told to become Catholics for a few weeks, wear crucifixes, role play as priests and hear one another's confession, and take the names of saints. And it would be intellectually dishonest of the court to refuse this.”

Catholics Split

The Thomas More Center customarily argues the other side on such cases, defending Christianity's presence in the public schools. Indeed, the center has been defending the Dover, Pa., public school district against parents protesting its inclusion of intelligent design references in the science curriculum on the same grounds White is using in California, that the board has violated the students’ First Amendment rights.

There are plenty of Catholics who have a different view of the case.

Father Ron Schmit of St. Anne Catholic Church in Byron is certain the lawsuit is wrong, however.

“I'm really angry at it: a bunch of outsiders coming into this small community where we all know each other, using this thing for their own political advantage,” he said.

According to Father Schmit, the course was beneficial. He was invited to participate, speaking to classes about the Catholic faith and even loaning vestments to students who were parishioners when it came time to role-play Christianity.

“Role playing is how some people learn best. And to understand the medieval period you can't ignore Islam.”

Rev. Dan Sturdivant of the Byron United Methodist Church also supports the Islamic component in the curriculum.

“It's not indoctrination. It's very secular,” he said. “But because it came out after 9/11, some parents went nuts. For most people now, this is just not an issue. The school district sure isn't trying to promote any particular religion.”

Interestingly, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a frequent ally of the Thomas More Center, also sides with Father Schmit on this issue.

“I have nothing but respect for them, and we've worked together before,” he said, “but I have to disagree with them on this one.”

Donohue thinks a better approach would be to try to get “equal treatment for Christians, and to expand the public expression of religion of any kind.”

For those concerned about Islam, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches about the Church's relationship with Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims,” it said. “These profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day” (841).

It echoes the Vatican document on the Church's relationship with other religions, Nostra Aetate, which was recently in the news on its 40th anniversary.

The Second Vatican Council taught: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even his inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, his virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.”

Only Pastor Steve Collins of the Grace Bible Fellowship in nearby Brentwood issued a minor caution. While it would probably “benefit” public school students to learn about world religions, he would “hope that they gave equal balance to the Christian element, especially in the founding of this country.”

“The courts have determined there should be separation of church and state,” Collins continued. “It's concerning to me that they have divorced the life and history of the country from the school.” Collins’ own children are taught in private academies or are home schooled precisely to avoid these problems, he said. But he could see how parents would be upset when their children were asked to role play as Muslims. “The prayer part would be distressing to me.”

According to White, a decision could take six months. And he is well aware of the irony.

“If this were done with Catholic material, the judge would throw it out in the blink of an eye because it was establishing a religion,” he said.

Unfortunately for policy makers, he said, the courts have applied the First Amendment in such an inconsistent manner to both schools and public facilities — in terms of displays of Nativity scenes or the Ten Commandments — that nobody can safely predict where the line between indoctrination and instruction will fall in any particular case.

“It's total confusion,” he said of religious instruction. “No one knows what's right or wrong.”

Steve Weatherbe is based in Victoria, British Columbia.