Federal Court Dismisses CAIR’s Lawsuit Against Scottsdale College Professor

Professor Nicholas Damask worked with FIREFIRE to defend his academic freedom rights after his college tried to force him to apologize for quiz questions about Islamic terrorism. [Photo courtesy FIRE]

PHOENIX – Judge Susan Brnovich has ruled in favor of Professor Nicholas Damask and the Maricopa County Community College District in a lawsuit filed by a student and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-AZ). The case involves Mohamed Sabra, who claimed that he was offended by material in Dr. Damask’s World Politics class.

Dr. M Zuhdi Jasser, president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), applauded the ruling.

“This week a judge handed the local legal bullies at CAIR-Arizona a swift judicial repudiation of their intimidation and Islamist blasphemy tactics against Professor Damask,” said Dr. Jasser. “We at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy expected nothing less. It is just too bad all the reckless media that initially viralized the global rantings of CAIR’s Islamist compatriot thugs across the planet against Dr. Damask won’t be held to one percent of the account they deserve on this outcome. While reporters and SCC leadership were mostly anesthetized on the realities of this case, it took a judge just a few minutes to expose that the actual victim here was neither the student nor his ambulance chasing Islamist attorneys, it was Dr. Damask. He was targeted by an Islamist propaganda operation driven by CAIR-AZ and their thuggish allies.”

Maricopa Community College District Board member Kathleen Winn called the ruling a victory for “academic freedom.”

“The court ruling determined that Professor Damask had the authority in deciding what was appropriate for his curriculum and reaffirmed his academic freedom. The student agreeing or disagreeing with the course work was not legal grounds for damages. I am very happy about this ruling and will continue to support our professors.”

Sabra was enrolled in the online World Politics course taught by Damask at Scottsdale Community College. Sabra claimed quiz questions on the subject of Islamic Terrorism violated the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Brnovich found specious Sabra’s claim that Damask was forcing him to admit that Islam mandates terrorism.

Brnovich found that the course does not violate the Establishment Clause, which bars “government action” which is reasonably “construed as sending primarily a message of either endorsement or disapproval of religion.”

The judge concluded that the course did not fail the second prong of the test created through Lemon v. Kurtzman (Lemon test) which outlines method for evaluating government action alleged to violate the Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause is not violated, according to the Lemon test, where the government action “(1) has a secular purpose; (2) does not have the principle or primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion; and (3) does not foster excessive entanglement with religion.”

In fact, Brnovich found that the course was not primarily intended to degrade Islam:

Examining the course as a whole, a reasonable, objective observer would conclude that the teaching’s primary purpose was not the inhibition of religion. The offending component was only a part of one-sixth of the course and taught in the context of explaining terrorism. One aspect of terrorism is Islamic terrorism. Only in picking select quotes from the course can one describe the module as anti-Islam. Dr. Damask also quotes Peter Bergen for the view that the terrorist threat comes from radical terror groups that represent a “twisted” variant of Islam as a whole. [Footnote: Further, as Plaintiff’s counsel misstated in oral argument, Question 19 of Dr. Damask’s quiz on terrorism states: “Walid Phares notes that although ‘gullible’ Westerners are taught that jihad can have two meanings, people in the Arabic world understand that its overwhelmingly obvious meaning is______.” […] This question merely asks students to identify the opinion of Walid Phares regarding Islam, not to adopt his position on Islam.] Thus, the Court finds that the primary effect of Dr. Damask’s course is not the inhibition of the practice of Islam.

Brnovich also rejected Sabra’s claim that answering quiz questions violated the Free Exercise Clause.

The Free Exercise Clause bars the government from substantially burdening a religious practice when the government does not have a compelling state interest.

Brnovich found:

Curriculum that merely conflicts with a student’s religious beliefs does not violate the Free Exercise Clause. Parker v. Hurley […] (requirement that public school students to read a book featuring gay couples did not violate constitutional rights of Christian parents or children); […] Torlakson […] (ruling that requiring students to learn class material that the plaintiffs viewed as “derogatory towards Hinduism” did not violate the Free Exercise Clause). “‘[D]istinctions must be drawn between those governmental actions that actually interfere with the exercise of religion, and those that merely require or result in exposure to attitudes and outlooks at odds with perspective prompted by religion.’” Torlakson […]. Government action that merely offends religious beliefs do not violate the Free Exercise Clause, “‘actual burden on the profession or exercise of religion is required.’” [Torlakson].

Here, Mr. Sabra alleges that he was forced to choose between denouncing his religion by selecting the “correct” answer or receiving a lower grade. That is simply not correct. As Defendants point out, Mr. Sabra was not required to adopt the views expressed by Dr. Damask or the authors Dr. Damask cited to in his course, but only to demonstrate an understanding of the material taught. Dr. Damask’s course did not inhibit Mr. Sabra’s personal worship in any way. Instead, Mr. Sabra was simply exposed to “attitudes and outlooks at odds” with his own religious perspective. See Torlakson […]. Therefore, as a matter of law, the Court finds that the Plaintiff’s allegations do not amount to a violation of the Free Exercise Clause by the Defendants, and these claims must be dismissed[.]

Brnovich also cited multiple cases in her dismissal of Sabra’s case due to a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Brnovich found that Sabra did not prove he was entitled to relief from the court. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice,” wrote Brnovich. “Without jurisdiction the court cannot proceed at all in any cause. Jurisdiction is power to declare the law, and when it ceases to exist, the only function remaining to the court is that of announcing the fact and dismissing the cause.”

The judge also found that Sabra did not incur actual injury. Sabra finished the World Politics course before bringing this action and no “official policy” was alleged to have caused his injuries, explained the judge.

The judge dispensed quickly CAIR-AZ’s claim that they had to divert their resources to create a campaign correcting the “Islamophobic information.” The judge found that the organization did not do anything outside their normal realm of advocacy.

The court concluded that if Dr. Damask had been put on notice that his actions might be unconstitutional, he would be entitled to qualified immunity if Sabra’s claims had not been dismissed on other grounds.

“Others — be they adherents to the Islamic faith or the academics who study it — may reach different conclusions than Damask,” noted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which first brought the case to the public’s attention. “ But it is the role of the professor to decide how to present and test material in their courses; their expertise on the matter is why a college or university has hired them. It is not the role of judges or administrators — who may answer to elected board members with political interests at odds with a faculty member’s views — to decide what questions to ask or their correct answers. That would create (and in this same community college district has created) a risk to scholars supportive or critical of any religion, including Islam.”