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California is deleting the often-used In Lak’Ech affirmation from its model ethnic studies curriculum to settle a lawsuit from a San Diego group that claims the affirmation constitutes an Aztec prayer.

The California Department of Education also is removing an Ashe affirmation from the curriculum. Ashe is a concept from the Yoruba people of Nigeria that refers to the power to effect change. The lawsuit argued it constitutes a religious chant.

Last year California became the first state to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. It will be required starting in 2026.

This lawsuit is one of the first major legal challenges to the state’s model curriculum, which was finalized in March 2021 to serve as a recommendation, but not a requirement, for schools.

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In September a group called Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, along with three San Diego parents, sued California education officials over the affirmations. They accused the state of violating the Establishment Clause of the state constitution, which prohibits the state from supporting a religion.

The foundation is one of several groups in San Diego that has been fighting anti-racist initiatives in K-12 schools, calling such efforts critical race theory.

Although state officials denied the lawsuit’s allegations, they agreed to remove the affirmations “out of an abundance of caution” and to avoid further litigation costs, said Scott Roark, spokesman for the California Department of Education. State officials are not admitting any liability.

Roark added that research has shown that well-taught ethnic studies classes improve students’ feelings of connection with their school, understanding with their peers, and graduation and college-going rates.

State officials said in the settlement agreement that they believe the deletions would be consistent with their “long-standing commitment to ensuring appropriate treatment of religion in a secular public education context.”

The settlement requires that state education officials notify all school districts, charter schools and county offices of education of the deletions. The state must also refrain from encouraging the use of the affirmations and advise all public schools that none of the model ethnic studies curriculum should be used as a prayer or religious act.

The state education department also will pay $100,000 for the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees. In exchange, the plaintiffs will dismiss the lawsuit.

“We are encouraged by this important, hard-fought victory,” said Frank Xu, president of Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, in a statement. “Our state has simply gone too far in attempts to promote fringe ideologies and racial grievance policies, even those that disregard established constitutional principles. Endorsing religious chants in the state curriculum is one glaring example.”

Many ethnic studies teachers say In Lak’Ech is not used as a prayer but as an affirmation, to help instill positive values in students such as respect and empathy. In Lak’Ech is based on the Mayan philosophy that means “You are my other me.”

The state’s model ethnic studies curriculum included a poem that Luis Valdez wrote about In Lak’Ech. The poem is frequently recited daily in high school ethnic studies classes in San Diego and elsewhere in California: “You are my other me, if I do harm to you, I do harm to myself, if I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.”

The model curriculum also included a longer chant based on In Lak’Ech and the Aztec concept of Nahui Ollin, also called the Four Movements. Nahui Ollin involves four concepts — self-reflection, knowledge, action and transformation — which are represented by the names of four Aztec gods. The chant also includes the name of a fifth Aztec god.

Californians for Equal Rights Foundation said the curriculum’s chant was invoking the names of Aztec deities and asking for their intercession. Some experts disagree, saying Nahui Ollin is a concept, not a prayer.

Californians for Equal Rights Foundation has been opposing such anti-racist initiatives as ethnic studies courses and school staff equity training for the past several months. The group is part of a national conservative-led movement that claims schools’ anti-racist initiatives equate to critical race theory and are racially divisive, indoctrinate political ideologies into students, and label students of color as victims and White students as oppressors.

Educators and anti-racist advocates say schools are not teaching critical race theory, which is a university-level discipline that examines how systemic racism is perpetuated by law. They say they worry that the national push against critical race theory in effect seeks to eliminate needed conversations about how race and racism have shaped history.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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