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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is being sued over a summer reading assignment that it has given to its 3,600 incoming freshmen and transfer students. “The Carolina Summer Reading Program,” according to the university’s website, “is designed to introduce you to the intellectual life of Carolina.” The goals of the program include “stimulating discussion and critical thinking around a current topic” and “enhancing a sense of community between students, faculty and staff.” The students are required to read an assigned book over the summer and write about it.
The book selected for the program this year is “Approaching the Qu’ran” (Koran) by Michael Sells, a professor of religion at Haverford College. This is a 220-page volume of 35 short passages from the Koran, Sells’ commentary on them and a CD with calls to prayer and readings from the Koran in Arabic. Last May, students were notified of the required assignment by postcard and advised to buy the book from the campus book store at the discounted price of $16.46, read it, write one page about it and come to the campus prepared to participate in a two-hour, small group discussion on Aug. 19.
Three students and two alumni are suing the university, charging that selecting only this one book, the Islamic scriptures, as the required reading for all incoming students violates the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. The suit, which was filed by the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy on July 22, names Chancellor James Moeser and Vice-Chancellor Cynthia Johnson as defendants.
They have made no public comment on it, but a few days earlier, when it was known that a suit was going to be filed, the university tacitly acknowledged that it had crossed the line. A change was made in the description of the assignment on its website. Instead of all incoming students being required to read the book, it said that those who objected to doing so for religious reasons could be excused if they wrote a one-page explanation of their reasons for not participating.
The students who are suing have had no written notification of this change. Given the difficulty of finding this information on the university’s website, it is very unlikely that many students are aware of it. It is much easier to find a notice that leaders of the group discussions are being recruited and that they don’t need anything but the book, which will be supplied to them free. Most of the students have probably already ordered it, providing professor Sells with a handsome windfall.
Stephen Crampton, one of the attorneys handling the lawsuit, calls attention to the fact that Sells’ book is confined to the early “revelations,” when Islam was still a peaceful religion. It does not include passages from the later “revelations” such as sura 4:89 that says that “those who reject Islam must be killed.” If the goal is to stimulate discussion and critical thinking about a current topic, the parts of the Koran that motivated the 9-11 suicidal terrorists would be more appropriate than the irenic early “revelations.” Crampton also says that giving the students the right to opt out does not lessen the unconstitutionality of the program. He argues that it heightens the problem by exacerbating the divisiveness.
Litigation counsel Michael DePrimo says, “Pitting students who object to the forced reading of the Koran against those who do not is the modern equivalent of requiring the objecting students to wear the yellow star of David. The university claimed that one purpose of the program is to enhance a sense of community between students and faculty. This opt-out program does precisely the opposite.”
DePrimo notes that the divisiveness of this assignment has already been made manifest. The students who are plaintiffs in the suit are withholding their names because of fear of retaliation. Terry Moffitt, one of the two alumni plaintiffs, has been deluged with hate mail since he spoke out publicly against the program. Crampton says that if it were the Bible, not the Koran, that was involved, ACLU lawyers would have parachuted into Chapel Hill. So far, they have not been sighted.
Reed Irvine is the chairman of Accuracy In Media, a media watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.