By Charles C. Haynes
In a crowded and often hostile public square, all it takes is one lawsuit to open up an ugly new front in America's culture wars.
The latest example of worldviews clashing comes from California, where a court battle puts evangelical Christian schools on a collision course with public universities. And the outcome could affect religious schools of all stripes across the nation.
In an unprecedented lawsuit, the Association of Christian Schools International and the Calvary Chapel Christian School of Murrieta, Calif., are accusing the University of California system of religious discrimination.
The fight began in the fall of 2004 when UC officials rejected new course proposals from Calvary as unacceptable for meeting admissions requirements to the 10 campuses in the university system. At issue were biology and physics textbooks from Christian publishers and several humanities courses. After negotiations between the Christian school and UC broke down last year, ACSI and Calvary filed suit. In December, a federal judge heard arguments on UC's motion to dismiss. A decision is expected soon about whether the suit will go forward.
UC claims that these courses can't be counted because they don't meet the university's academic standards. ACSI argues that the courses and textbooks in question adequately cover the required subject matter — and were only rejected by UC because of their Christian viewpoint.
So which is it: upholding standards or religious discrimination? Reading some of the texts in dispute, it's clear that these courses are framed by a strong evangelical perspective — as might be expected in a school with a religious mission. But here's the question: Were the courses rejected because of the religious content as ACSI alleges — or because they don't provide the knowledge "generally accepted in the scientific and educational communities" as the university charges?
Solely on academic grounds, the most problematic textbook may be the one used in biology. If UC can show that the text presents inaccurate or misleading science, then the university may have a legitimate basis for not accepting the course. If, however, the textbook presents the core information students need to know about biology, then the additional religious content should not disqualify the course. In other words, if the science itself is sound, then the fact that the authors promise to "put the Word of God first and science second" should be irrelevant in the university's decision.
Similar issues surround the physics book. It appears to have what you might find in any high school physics book — plus verses from the Bible at the beginning of each chapter. Here again, UC should focus only on whether or not the physics is accurate. The university's interest should begin and end with an examination of the foundational material that students need to learn in physics. How much religion is added on should not be the concern of the state.
Especially troubling to me are the rejections of literature and history courses taught from a Christian perspective. For example, UC claims that "Christianity's Influence on American History" was disallowed because the focus was "too narrow/too specialized." Yet courses from other schools that sound just as narrow or specialized (e.g., "Race, Class and Gender in Modern America") have won approval.
Of course, the University of California has every right to establish academic standards for admission and disapprove courses from any school that don't cover the core content in science, history, literature or other subjects. But under the establishment clause of the First Amendment, no state university should keep a course from the "approved list" because it includes religious ideas or is taught from a religious perspective.
Until we know all of the facts behind UC's decision-making, it's hard to sort out why some of these Calvary courses were rejected. But past approval of courses with a viewpoint such as "Feminist Issues throughout U.S. History" lends credence to ACSI's contention that the university is targeting textbooks and courses with an evangelical perspective. If true (and that's what trials are for), that would be a form of viewpoint discrimination prohibited by the First Amendment.
This high-profile fight over courses taught in Christian schools has already sent a chilling message to other religious schools. They worry that if these courses can be rejected, what's next? After all, most subjects in religious schools are taught from a faith perspective — and may well include religious viewpoints of science, literature or history that the university could deem not "generally accepted" in the secular scientific and educational communities.
Concerned about this slippery slope, ACSI hopes to stop what it characterizes as "religious discrimination" against Calvary before the problem spreads to other schools and states. It's true that Calvary remains free to teach these courses and students are free to take them. But the fact that the courses don't count as a college preparatory requirement for admission to UC puts Calvary students at a distinct disadvantage.
At lot is at stake for both sides. If the university's decision to reject these courses is upheld, ACSI fears that religious schools throughout the nation will be pressured to make sure that course offerings aren't "too religious" to qualify for consideration at public universities. But if ACSI prevails, UC worries about interference with the university's right to establish academic standards for admission.
Whatever the California judge decides, this new culture-war conflict is unlikely to end soon. Unless some mutual understanding is reached, the peaceful co-existence that has historically marked relations between religious schools and public universities may come to a bitter end. For a nation increasingly divided by religion and ideology, that would be bad news indeed.
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.