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Academic Freedom Versus Christian Fundamentalism In North Carolina


Thursday, Aug. 22, 2002

Terry Moffit is a member of the Family Policy Network - a fundamentalist Christian group that maintains that Christian churches are God's appointed agents in government and society - and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Moffit was outraged when he heard that Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations was on UNC-Chapel Hill's reading list for incoming freshmen.

UNC denies that it was promoting Islam. Rather, it says, the book was assigned to help students understand why more than 1.3 billion people in the world believe in the teachings of Islam (students opposed to the assignment could opt out). Indeed, if there were public discussion along the lines of the study questions set out in the syllabus, we would all be the better informed for it.

Claims Within and Outside Government That Christianity Is Superior to Islam

Moffit has a lot of company in his anti-Islam stance. In the early days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Reverends Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham, Jr. came out against Islam.

Then, on June 10 of this year, during a meeting at the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, the Reverend Jerry Vines - pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida and former president of the Convention - told conventioneers "that Islam is just not as good as Christianity." It was, he said, " founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives - and his last one was a 9-year-old girl."

Reverend Falwell agreed with Vines. Jesus, he explained, was "born of a sinless virgin and died on the cross to give everyone everlasting life," while Muhammad led massacres against thousands of Jews."

These views might not be quite so disturbing if they had not also been echoed, in various ways, by statements of a Supreme Court Justice and our current Attorney General. In an article in the May issue of the Catholic journal First Things, Justice Antonin Scalia says that the moral authority of the American government derives from its Christian foundations. (While the article is more famous for Scalia's call for anti-death penalty judges to resign, this contention, too, is remarkable.) And Attorney General Ashcroft famously told believers at Bob Jones University, a few years back, "There is no king but Jesus."

What these speakers all share is the belief that they worship a morally superior "God," one better than Allah. Their religion is the "truth," Islam doctrinal "error." This bigoted perspective does not square with the public statements of President Bush, who, since September 1, has repeatedly referred to Islam as one of the world's great religions that the terrorists "hijacked" just as surely as they hijacked four American airplanes.

While Moffit and others who share his intolerance want to silence the discussion of any perspective other than this one of extremes, there has never been a time in modern American history when critical thinking and tolerance is more needed. And academic freedom at UNC is a good place to begin.

Court Precedents Show That Academic Freedom Applies to Protect UNC's Assigned Book

It has been adopted as policy in virtually every college and university in the country, public and private, including Bob Jones, Regent (run by Pat Robertson), and Liberty (Jerry Falwell) Universities. These fundamentalist Christian schools accord to themselves the right to require faculty to meet stringent religious standards in their instruction and personal life, including taking a religious oath. Moffit himself benefited from academic freedom in Russia, no less, where he convinced public and private schools and universities to establish courses in "Biblical" morals and ethics.

The U.S. Supreme Court - while it has never recognized a constitutional right to academic freedom - has repeatedly praised the principle. In the 1957 case of Sweezy v. New Hampshire, for example, a four-justice plurality invoked the virtues of academic freedom when it voted to overturn the contempt of court conviction of a professor who had refused to answer questions posed by a New Hampshire attorney general after giving a pro-socialist speech.

The plurality, which included Justice Felix Frankfurter, made dramatic claims for the importance of academic freedom, staking nothing less than the nation's very survival on its preservation. Their defense of academic freedom was an exceptionally passionate one:

"[t]he essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. . . . Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

The opinion went on to emphasize "the dependence of a free society on free universities," and they concluded by enumerating "the four essential freedoms of a university--to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study." These are precisely the rights of UNC that Moffit and his followers sought to infringe.

Not Just Precedent, But Policy, Shows the Value of Teaching About Islam and Its Distortions

In the aftermath of September 11, an oft-repeated query was, "Why do they hate us?" The stock response, including from President Bush, was that they "hate our freedom."

What an irony, then, that an extreme segment of American society, under the guise of practicing the "one true faith," would take away the very freedoms for which we are supposedly fighting. They seek to become the thought police, the classroom police, and the worship police. Meeting terrorists' extremism with extremism, and their intolerance with intolerance, is precisely the wrong response.

Academic Freedom Prevails--For The Time Being

A unanimous three-judge panel denied the request for injunction, a not unexpected conclusion given its dicta in a 2000 en banc decision that "the claim of an academic institution to status as a 'university' may fairly be said to depend upon the extent to which its faculty members are allowed to pursue knowledge free of external constraints." The court explained, "Were it not so, advances in learning surely would be hindered in a manner harmful to the university as an institution and to society at large."

Despite the loss, we should not expect this to be the end of fundamentalist Christians' using litigation and lobbying to attempt to exert control over the thinking and teaching that goes on at institutions of higher learning. Their stance is wholly antithetical to the Constitution, but has support in North Carolina.

Prior to the district court hearing, the North Carolina House quickly passed a budget amendment that blocks funding for religious courses in the UNC System that do not include all religions in the curriculum. It was approved without debate on the House floor Tuesday and was scheduled to proceed to the Senate floor, where it was likely to be voted into conference committee.

In another blow, the UNC System Board of Governors voted down a resolution of support for "commitment to freedom -- religious, academic and political" -- on the 16 UNC System campuses.

America--and North Carolina--have traveled this road before in the McCarthy era. North Carolina enacted a law forbidding anyone who took the Fifth Amendment before congressional hearings from speaking at state universities, a ban that stayed in effect until it was overturned by a federal court order in 1968.

We can only hope that the Fourth Circuit's decision this week is a sign that we can count on the judiciary to defend the Constitution from the religious leaders and government officials intent on suppressing public debate, undermining our educational institutions, and co-opting religion for political gain.

Attorney and author Elaine Cassel practices law in Virginia and teaches law and psychology. She is the chair of the Behavioral Sciences Committee of the Science and Technology Section of the American Bar Association, and the author of Criminal Behavior (Allyn & Bacon, 2001), a study of crime from a developmental perspective.

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