Science

Suit Claims Anti-Religious Bias in Calif. System

By Sean Cavanagh — September 07, 2005 3 min read
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The battle over what schools should teach about life’s origins has shifted to another front: the world of college admissions.

The Association of Christian Schools International has filed a federal lawsuit against the University of California system, charging that the institution’s high school course requirements for applicants violate the constitutional rights of students from religious schools.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, charges that UC unfairly rejects science courses that use textbooks casting doubt on evolution and espousing creationist beliefs. It also challenges the university system’s guidelines for course content in English, history, and social studies, in which the plaintiffs also claim anti-Christian bias.

“This is not in any sense [only] a creationism-versus-science suit,” said Wendell Bird, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

The case was filed Aug. 25 on behalf of Calvary Chapel Christian School, a religious K-12 school in Murrieta, Calif., and six families of students there. Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a religious organization based in Temecula, Calif., is also a plaintiff.

Universities “used to encourage innovation in teaching and learning,” Mr. Bird said last week. “Why would California need to intrude into what has always been a teacher and student question?”

Academic Preparation

The suit emerges as the theory of evolution—advanced by Charles Darwin and overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community—faces challenges in school districts and states.

In California, if public or private high schools want their graduates to be eligible for admission, they must submit course descriptions to the UC system for review and approval. A committee of university faculty members from different disciplines sets guidelines for those courses.

University officials say their goal is to ensure that students are academically prepared for college. Applicants to the nine undergraduate UC campuses, which serve roughly 150,000 students, are also judged by such factors as class rank and nonacademic criteria—an approach that is widely regarded as a model for public institutions nationwide.

UC system spokeswoman Ravi Poorsina declined to comment last week on the specifics of the lawsuit. But she said that the university accepts roughly 85 percent of all courses high schools submit, and that schools that have courses rejected can reapply. “We want to work with schools,” she said.

Other Subjects in Question

“We totally respect the rights of public and private schools,” Ms. Poorsina said. “We’re not looking to make this difficult for anyone, or any religion.”

The lawsuit says that UC administrators balked at the use of textbooks that advocated creationism, the belief that God created the universe and all living things as described in the Bible. One such textbook, according to the complaint, was published by Bob Jones University Press, which is associated with the well-known, Greenville, S.C.-based Christian institution.

History courses submitted for UC approval were also unfairly rejected, the lawsuit contends, because they did not conform to what university officials describe as “empirical historical knowledge.” Similarly, social studies and English courses were turned down because their coursework or texts were deemed biased or incomplete, the plaintiffs say.

None of the students in the lawsuit has been rejected yet for admission to UC, the plaintiffs ‘ lawyer said last week. But because of previous course rejections, the lawsuit argues, those students will be subject to even more-stringent entry requirements at UC, where admissions are already extremely competitive at several campuses.

Barmak Nassirian, an associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, in Washington, said he was not aware of a case that addressed the same legal issues as the California complaint. Other universities follow processes similar to the one UC uses, which, he said, are aimed at bringing uniformity and fairness to admissions.

Still, Mr. Nassirian said he was worried about the potential implications of asking a university to ignore its course requirements—which had been shaped by experts in various fields—in favor of a “free-for-all,” in which any interest group is allowed to shape policy.

“We’re being asked to treat the consensus of the scientific community as just another opinion,” he said of the lawsuit’s complaint about the teaching of evolution. Admissions officers “don’t call the shots,” he said. “We defer to the judgment of the faculty.”

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