Chapel Hill, N.C., July 30--Brynn Hardman was all set to sit back and glide through some Danielle Steel on Atlantic Beach this summer. Just graduated from high school in Raleigh, N.C., she was looking forward to a bit of light fare before hitting the heavy tomes of freshman year. Instead, the tanned teen is immersed in the curlicue phrasings of what would have been her personal last choice for beachside reading: the Koran.

Ms. Hardman and 3,500 other soon-to-be freshmen at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill have a controversial assignment: to delve into excerpts of a text invoked by the Sept. 11 terrorists. Only two pages into "Approaching the Qur'an," by Michael Sells, Hardman says the book is "an awful choice."

For the past three years, UNC freshmen have been handed summer reading tasks on topics such as the growth of Civil War reenactments and the Vietnam War. But this year's choice raises a question other campuses are likely to face as the US wages its war on terrorism: How far should a public school go in educating students about religion when the faith in question sits at the center of present-day conflicts - and is closely linked in many students' minds to terror?

"The timing couldn't be worse," says Jody Hardman, a public school teacher who's on campus with her daughter for an orientaton session. "At a time when we're told we can't say 'under God' during the pledge, here's a public school assigning the Koran."

Last week, three students and a conservative Christian organization took their discontent a step further, and filed a lawsuit. UNC officials say they have not only the prerogative but the responsibility to open students' eyes to the Muslim religion and culture. Indeed, pundits here on campus say UNC's experiment should be a call to other institutions to follow suit - for the good of the country.

But critics say this bulwark of liberal thought--a campus where antiwar signs went up even before bombs had begun falling over Afghanistan--has crossed the line by forcing students to read the book. The controversy simply fuels UNC's reputation of chief gadfly here, smack in the heart of Baptist country. People with religious objections can opt out by writing an essay explaining why, but they still must attend a group discussion when they arrive in mid-August. "The question is, what's the big role of the university here?" says Carl Ernst, the religious-studies professor who recommended the book to a selection committee of faculty, staff, and students.

"[Critics] assume the choice represents advocacy, but we just want to advance knowledge," he says. "This will not explain the terrorist attacks of last September, but this will be a first step toward understanding something important about Islamic spirituality, and to see its adherents as human beings."

So far, no other university has gone so far as to mandate the reading of the Koran, although many schools have seen renewed interest in religious and international studies after Sept. 11.

For many people, a quick perusal of "Approaching the Qur'an" would dispel the idea that this assignment is a scheme to proselytize. Instead, the book about the "early revelations," which includes a CD of sung prayer, delves into the mystery and poetry of the spoken Koran. It explores how the text has wended its way into the hearts of 1 billion people and deep into the framework of politics and culture in the East. "The purpose of this book is neither to refute nor to promote the Qur'anic message," Mr. Sells writes. "Rather, the goal is to allow those who do not have access to the Qur'an in its recited, Arabic form to encounter one of the most influential texts in human history in a manner that is accessible." For the parents of freshman Jennifer DeCurtis of Asheville, N.C., the choice of a book that focuses on a major world religion is appropriate - even during a war with religious overtones. "I think it will open their thinking up to what Islam is really all about," says dad David DeCurtis. "And I think that's an appropriate role for a school like UNC."

Some parents, on the other hand, have refused to let their children attend because of the assignment. Other parents and alumni have called the chancellor to complain. What's more, the ACLU has vowed to oversee some of the discussion groups, which will be led by about 180 faculty volunteers who were trained this summer. School officials say the program will "pass the smell test." But they won't comment on the lawsuit, which was filed by three freshmen of various religious backgrounds and the Virginia-based Family Policy Network.

John Sanders, a fellow at the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C., which has long questioned a variety of university actions, says he wouldn't have a problem if the school was merely urging teenagers to read the text before they come to school. It's the requirement that rubs. "We're at war, after all," says Mr. Sanders. "This isn't akin to teaching the Bible. We do need to understand them, yes, but it's not the best thing to cram this down people's throats right now."