Sunday, November 27, 2005

Suit claims UC system discriminated against Christians

More from the education wars ... Suit claims UC system discriminated against Christians ... in full ...

The college plans of six students at a Murietta school have sparked a lawsuit that could have implications for academia nationwide.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, contends that officials with the University of California system discriminated against students from Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murietta when they decided that some of the school's religious-viewpoint courses – such as "Christianity's Influence on American History" – do not meet the UC system's admissions standards.

The complaint, pushed by the Association of Christian Schools International, alleges the university's decision violates the First Amendment religious-practice rights of the students, including two who plan to attend UC San Diego.

A Dec. 12 hearing has been set on a request by UC lawyers to dismiss the complaint.

The case is being closely tracked by free-speech advocates, public educators and Christian leaders who are concerned about the impact the case could have on state school admissions policies and the ability of some Christian schools to teach their core beliefs.

The lawsuit "is one piece of the culture war that is ongoing in our country for a number of years," said Robert Tyler, who represents the students and heads the group Advocates for Faith and Freedom. "It's important for our clients to take a stand at this time to prevent the intolerance of the UC and to prevent them from attempting to secularize private Christian schools."

"This appears to be coming in as the first wave in an assault," said Barmak Nassirian, an official with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, who sees the lawsuit as an effort by a special-interest group to improperly shape admissions requirements.

UC lawyers say Calvary Chapel students are free to study as they choose, but they still must take courses approved by the university system – or alternately take an SAT subject test – to gain admission to one of the UC's 10 campuses.

Christopher Patti, a UC lawyer, said that in the past four years, 32 students from Calvary Chapel have applied for UC schools, and 24 were admitted.

The lawsuit "has more to do with the university's ability to set admissions standards than it does with the plaintiffs' ability to teach what they want," Patti said. "We don't try to limit what they teach."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs contend this dispute came up two years ago when UC admissions officials began closely examining Calvary Chapel's courses and texts that emphasized Christianity. Among the rejected courses were biology classes with texts by A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press, both conservative Christian publishers. Courses titled "Special Providence: American Government" and "Christianity and Morality in American Literature" were also rejected.

The lawsuit argues that it is unfair these courses were nixed while others titled "Western Civilization: The Jewish Experience" and "Intro to Buddhism" were approved.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at Virginia-based First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum, said the supporters might have a valid complaint.

"I think the university has the right to require entering students to have a foundation on the subjects the university thinks help provide a preparation for higher education," he said "But I think the schools have a point when they say other courses from other institutions are allowed in, but when a course has 'Christian' in the title, it seems to raise a red flag."

Patti said of the roughly 1,000 courses submitted for approval every year, 15 percent are rejected for reasons such as lacking proper content or being too narrowly focused.

It is the Calvary Chapel's biology courses that have sparked the most debate.

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which fights attempts to teach intelligent design and creationism as science in public schools, called the biology texts used by the school "unabashedly creationist" books that explain evolution in a confusing manner. Creationism is the belief that God created the universe and all life.

Branch noted that the preface of the Bob Jones University's biology textbook states: "If conclusions contradict the word of God, the conclusions are wrong no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them."

"I don't think the UC is insisting that incoming students accept evolution," Branch said. "They want them to have a good understanding of it. That's the purpose of education."

But plaintiff lawyer Wendell Bird, who argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1987 Louisiana case dealing with creationist instruction in public schools, said it is wrong to interpret the suit solely as a fight over creationism. "This case would exist even if the science course had been accepted" by UC admissions officials, he said, noting other courses also were rejected.

Nassirian said he sees the lawsuit's proponents as attempting to win an academic debate outside the academic world. "You cannot get a victory in court on science, as Galileo learned."