Beliefnet
Classes opened this week at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with controversy--the university's requirement that all 4,200 incoming freshmen and transfer students read Michael Sells' Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations, a 320-page book which discusses 35 verses from Islam's holiest text.

Originally, reading the book and participating in small-group discussions about it were required. However, the university, under heated criticism and facing legal challenges in federal court, amended the assignment to allow students not wishing to participate to pen a one-page essay explaining their objection.

What's wrong with freshmen learning more about one of the world's most prominent and influential religions? The objections and concerns are serious on both the legal and religious levels.

First, what is a state university supported by taxpayer funds doing requiring incoming students to read a book about one, and only one, religion? It would be different if this book were being required at, say, Duke University, because that is a private school. A federal district court and an appeals court disagree with my point of view, but I and many others believe that using this text at the University of North Carolina is a flagrant violation of the separation of church and state. The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no Law respecting an Establishment of religion." For nearly half a century, the Supreme Court has interpreted that to mean that government institutions at any level must not give the appearance of favoring one religion over others, or religion over non-religion.

If you were going to have such a reading assignment, it should not have been required at a state university, and it should have included similar introductions to at least Christianity and Judaism. Perhaps it isn't surprising that among the students named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit objecting to the assignment were a Catholic, a Jew, and an evangelical Christian.

Just how does this assignment, which in my opinion gives a favorable introduction to the most benign 35 verses of the Qur'an, coincide with the Supreme Court decisions? I don't believe it does. I hope the plaintiffs in this case appeal, and that the Supreme Court takes the case in order to answer that question. Remember, this is the same Supreme Court that ruled just over a year ago in the Santa Fe school prayer case that student-initiated, student-led, student content-dictated, voluntary prayer before a high school football game was unconstitutional because the school provided the public address system, and this implied government support for a religion.

Some answer such objections by stating that the assignment was not mandatory. Yes it was, until the last two weeks of the summer, when many of the students had already read the book. And anyway, just how "voluntary" is an assignment in which incoming freshmen are required to write an essay explaining to a professor their reasons for declining to participate. Joe Glover, president of the Family Policy Network, one of the plaintiffs, says: "I find it highly offensive that a state university will force students to defend their own deeply-held religious beliefs as a basis for not studying some other religion."

Others have said that students need to know more about Islam and that "they already know about Christianity and Judaism." Well, if they do have knowledge of Christianity and Judaism, it surely is in spite of all that the public schools have done to shield them from any such knowledge while on school property. What message is sent to 18-year-old freshmen who have been zealously protected from exposure to religion at public school to now have their first government-sponsored exposure to religion be an introduction to Islam?

There are also serious objections to the university assignment on a religious level. Approaching the Qur'an does not focus on the more controversial teachings, such as jihad. This would be similar to assigning a text about Christianity that focused solely on Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), while neglecting his teaching, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me." (John 14:6)

If an assignment about Islam was made, it should have been voluntary, it should have included similar introductions to other religions, and it should have included a full-orbed view of the religions under discussion.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11--which, let's remember, were done in the name of Islam--there have been many discussions about whether this violence represents true Islam, or whether it is an aberration or just one faction within that religion. Much evidence has been presented to argue that Islam has many manifestations. What about the fact that in most countries where Islam dominates there is little, if any, freedom of religion? In Saudi Arabia, it is a crime to build any non-Muslim house of worship. In many Islamic countries, converting from Islam to any other faith is punishable by death. These are not excesses from a distant past, but present persecution and intolerance.

James A. Beverley, a professor of theology at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, and author of Understanding Islam calls Islam "a many splintered thing." If that's true, then UNC's students were exposed by a state-supported institution to one, and only one, splinter, instead of the whole forest. That's unconstitutional and wrong.

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