A Church-State Clash Over College Requirements

A Christian high school has sued the U. of California for not certifying 3 courses taught from a religious viewpoint

By Jennifer Jacobson,The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 3, 2006

Except for its title,American Literature: Classics for Christians looks like any other high-school textbook. It includes short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe and defines literary terms such as irony and satire.

But the text, published by A Beka Book, in Pensacola, Fla., also asks how many of Benjamin Franklin's 13 virtues have a "Scriptural basis." And it describes a speech that William Jennings Bryan gave during the Scopes "monkey" trial, in 1925, as a "well-reasoned argument for the authority of the Bible against the claims of evolutionary philosophers."

"For the Christian," the book's introduction says, "the study of the classics is an opportunity to confront the great literature of the nation with the truths of God's Word."

Now a Christian school that wants to use Classics for Christians has confronted one of the nation's largest university systems about its admissions policies. In August the Calvary Chapel Christian School, in Murrieta, Calif., sued the University of California for refusing to certify for use in admissions three of the school's courses - in history, literature, and social studies - all of which would have included Christian textbooks.

The plaintiffs, including six Calvary students who hope to attend the university, contend that it has violated their First Amendment rights to free speech and religion by denying them the opportunity to use the courses to meet admissions requirements. The university insists that it has done nothing wrong and has filed a motion to dismiss the case.

A U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles is expected to rule on whether the lawsuit may go forward in the next few months, and officials from colleges and Christian schools are watching the case closely.

The first-of-its-kind lawsuit could have far-reaching implications for both religious high schools and public colleges: What constitutes an acceptable academic course? At what point does a high-school curriculum become too infused with religion? To what extent should public colleges be free to decide which high-school courses they will certify?

"I don't think anybody would say state universities shouldn't have a great deal of say over admissions requirements - after all, they are experts," says John C. Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, in Washington. "The question becomes, How much discretion do they have?"

'A Religious Perspective'
High-school students, whether in California or in other states, who wish to attend one of the University of California's 10 campuses are required to take a minimum number of courses approved by the university system.

To obtain that approval, both public and private schools in California must file an application that describes the teaching materials used in each course. Instructions published by the university encourage high schools to "emphasize core knowledge and skills" in their curricula, and to "design courses that are academically challenging."

According to the complaint filed by the plaintiffs, the university began notifying Christian schools in January 2004 that it would no longer approve biology and physics courses that use textbooks published by either Bob Jones University Press or A Beka Book because of "the way in which these texts address the topics of evolution and creationism."

Later that year, Calvary Chapel officials submitted three nonscience courses - "Christianity and Morality in American Literature," "Christianity's Influence on American History," and "Special Providence: American Government" - to the University of California for approval. The university rejected each of the courses.

In a July 2005 letter to Calvary Chapel explaining their decision, university officials wrote that the literature course, for instance, had "an interesting reading list" but did "not offer a nonbiased approach to the subject matter."

Robert H. Tyler, a lawyer representing Calvary Chapel, says the course would have required students to examine how Christianity and morality affected the works of such prominent authors as Ernest Hemingway. Mr. Tyler, whose wife teaches at the school, contends that university officials rejected the courses for ideological reasons, noting that they did not cite a lack of academic rigor on the part of the school.

"It appears that UC is attempting to secularize private, Christian education," he says.

The complaint also claims that the university has treated Christian students differently from other students. The plaintiffs note that the system has approved other high-school courses taught from particular viewpoints, including "Race, Class, and Gender in Modern America," "Feminist Issues Throughout U.S. History," and "Introduction to Jewish Thought."

Wendell R. Bird, a lawyer for the Association of Christian Schools International, which represents 4,000 religious schools and filed the lawsuit jointly with Calvary Chapel, says the university's decision threatens the constitutional right of Christian students to receive an education informed by a particular viewpoint.

"As long as we teach standard material in a particular course," Mr. Bird says, "it's not any of UC's business what might be added to that in terms of religious perspective."

California officials have argued that the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee permits the university to set its own admissions policies. They also say their decision not to certify courses based on Christian textbooks does not infringe on the rights of students to attend high schools of their choosing or to take any particular course.

"We want to make it very clear that there's no sense in which the university discriminates against Christian students," says Christopher M. Patti, a lawyer for the university. "We admit many, many students from Christian schools."

'Neutral' Standards
High schools submit an average of 7,000 proposals for new courses, in core subjects and electives, to the university annually. Of all the courses submitted this year, the university approved about 66 percent, compared with nearly 70 percent of those submitted by schools affiliated with the Association of Christian Schools International, says Mr. Patti. The university has certified about 50 courses offered at Calvary Chapel.

"What we've done here is just apply neutral academic standards to all the courses, including courses submitted by Christian schools," he says.

Of the university's decision to reject biology and physics courses that several Christian schools have submitted in the past couple of years, Mr. Patti says the textbooks that those courses had planned to use "really were teaching religion instead of science."

If students choose to take a course that the University of California has not approved, he notes, they can get credit for that subject if they score 530 to 550, depending on the test, out of a possible 800 on SAT subject tests.

The university provides alternatives to students who attend high schools that do not offer a sufficient number of certified courses.

In their lawsuit, however, the plaintiffs refer to the alternatives as "highly restrictive and burdensome." For instance, argues Mr. Bird, while students in the top 12.5 percent to 15 percent of their classes are generally admitted to the university, students without enough approved courses must reach the top 2 percent to 4 percent to be admitted.

"UC itself says it's the best institution in California," Mr. Bird says. "Christian-school students shouldn't be excluded from the best."

Calvary Chapel students, however, have hardly been excluded from the university: In the past four years, the system's universities have accepted 24 of the school's 32 applicants.

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