Debating religion's role in admissions

Christian school sues Calif. system for rejecting classes



Cody Young is an evangelical Christian who attends a religious high school in Southern California. With stellar grades, competitive test scores and an impressive list of extracurricular activities, Young has mapped a future that includes studying engineering at the University of California and a career in the aerospace industry, his lawyers have said.

But Young, his teachers and his family fear his beliefs may hurt his chance to attend the university. They say the public university system, which has 10 campuses, discriminates against students from evangelical Christian schools, especially faith-based ones like Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, where Young is a senior.

Young, five other Calvary students, the school and the Association of Christian Schools International, which represents 4,000 religious schools, sued the University of California in the summer, accusing it of "viewpoint discrimination" and unfair admission standards that violate the free speech and religious rights of evangelical Christians.

The suit, scheduled for a hearing Dec. 12 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, says many of Calvary's best students are at a disadvantage when they apply to the university because admissions officials have refused to certify several of the school's courses on literature, history, social studies and science that use curriculums and textbooks with a Christian viewpoint.

The lawyer for the school, Robert Tyler, said that reviewing and approving the course content was an intrusion into private education that amounted to government censorship. "They are trying to secularize private Christian schools," Tyler said. "They have taken God out of public schools. Now they want to do it at Christian schools."

A lawyer for the university, Christopher M. Patti, called the suit baseless. Acknowledging the university does not accept some courses, Patti said that more than 43 courses were recognized and that UC campuses had offered admission to at least 18 Calvary students since 2002. "Calvary students are perfectly free to take whatever courses they like," Patti said. "All we are saying is that unapproved courses cannot be submitted to satisfy the requirements for entry."

The suit is being closely watched by free-speech advocates, other public universities and Christian education leaders. All see it as a possible harbinger for admissions policies at state universities nationally.

Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum, which studies press and religious freedom, said the university was sending a chilling message to religious schools. "If you have to clean up your religious act to get courses accepted, that's a problem," said Haynes, who has reviewed the long complaint.

Discussing the university, he said: "They certainly have a right to say the student needs to take foundational courses. That's fair. But when you get into the business of saying how a particular subject is taught or if it has too much of a religious overlay, then I think you are crossing a line."

The university maintains that under the state constitution, a faculty committee called the board of admissions and relations with schools has the authority to set academic standards for admissions.

Ravi Poorsina, a spokeswoman for the university, said the goal was to ensure that entering students are well prepared and competitive.

"This is not a viewpoint issue for us," Poorsina said. "Teach whatever you want. We don't want to be in the position of dictating what is taught. But we do have a right to set standards for admission, and ours are not unreasonable requirements."

A lawyer for the Association of Christian Schools International, Wendell Bird, said the Calvary concerns surfaced two years ago when the admissions board scrutinized more closely courses that emphasized Christianity.

In the last year, the board has rejected courses like Christianity's Influence in American History, Special Provenance: Christianity and the American Republic, Christianity and Morality in American Literature and a biology course using textbooks from the Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book, conservative Christian publishers.

The officials rejected the science courses because the curriculum differed from "empirical historical knowledge generally accepted in the collegiate community," the suit said. Calvary was told to submit a secular curriculum instead.

Courses in other subjects were rejected because they were called too narrow or biased.

"What really lights the fire here," Tyler said, "is when you look at courses the UC has approved from other schools. In the titles alone, you can see the discrimination against us."

The university has approved courses on Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and gender and counterculture's effects on literature, he noted.

Poorsina said many courses on Christianity had been accepted, as have Bob Jones science books. For texts, Poorsina said, the university wants comprehensive and instructive overviews.

A university fact sheet says publishers sometimes acknowledge that their books are mainly to teach religion. The sheet has this excerpt from Bob Jones' "Biology for Christian Schools," used in unapproved courses: "The people who have prepared this book have tried consistently to put the Word of God first and science second."

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