United States: A new front in the culture wars: The Lord’s word
“Are secular universities discriminating against religious schools? Or are they just setting high standards?”
(Los Angeles) In its opening pages, Biology for Christian Schools (Bob Jones University Press) comes straight to the point:
“The people who have prepared this book have tried consistently to put the Word of God first and science second. To the best of the author’s knowledge, the conclusions drawn from observable facts that are presented in this book agree with the Scriptures. If a mistake has been made (which is probable since this book was prepared by humans) and at any point God’s Word is not put first, the author apologises.”
And that is precisely why a high-school science course using the 693-page book as a primary text does not meet the admission standards of the University of California (UC). It does not, argues the university, reflect “knowledge generally accepted in the scientific and educational communities and with which a student at the university level should be conversant.” The same, says the university, is true of some other courses—in history, literature and government—offered by Calvary Chapel Christian Schools of Murrieta, a small town south-east of Los Angeles. These courses also rely on books from the Bob Jones University Press and from another Christian publisher, A Beka Books.
Welcome to the latest front in America’s culture wars. The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), the Calvary Chapel Schools and six Calvary Chapel students are suing the university, whose campuses include that traditional bastion of liberal thought, Berkeley, as well as the huge UCLA campus, for what they call “viewpoint discrimination”. The Christian schools add that the university is violating the students’ constitutional right to freedom of speech and religion. The university naturally denies the charges, and this week a federal judge in Los Angeles began considering the preliminary arguments of a contest which could eventually reach the Supreme Court.
So far the UC case has had less publicity than the argument about whether high schools can teach “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution (currently being fought out in a courtroom in Pennsylvania) or even a ferocious dispute up in Cupertino, where a history teacher claims he was restrained from teaching about Christianity’s role in American history (parents had complained that he was acting more like an evangelical preacher). In fact, all these arguments are part of the same battleground, which pits an increasingly self-confident evangelical America against a secular education establishment.
The ACSI, which represents almost 4,000 Christian high schools in America, including some 800 in California, worries that if the Christians’ challenge fails, UC’s intolerance might spread to other institutions and other states. Moreover, says a lawyer for the plaintiffs, victory would be “a major blow to the arrogance of the ivory towers and their attempt to say that kids from Christian schools can’t be well prepared for university.”
There is a lot at stake. California, with its ten-campus UC system and the 23-campus California State network, has America’s biggest—and best—system of public universities. The case has arisen because of the way that UC, unlike other systems, intrudes into high-school education. Its Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools assesses high-school courses to see if they meet its standards (known as “A-G requirements”, and ranging from a two-year history syllabus to one-year elective courses in subjects such as the visual and performing arts).
UC denies it practices secular intolerance and “viewpoint discrimination”. It notes that it has approved plenty of courses at Christian schools and in the past four years has accepted 24 of the 32 applicants from the Murrieta school. And it says that if the courses had used these textbooks “as supplementary, rather than primary, texts, it is likely they would have been approved.”
What is really being challenged, says the university, is its right to set its own academic standards and admission requirements. In which case the question is what that right implies. The Christian plaintiffs say they have no objection to science students, for example, being taught conventional wisdom, but “their constitutional rights are abridged or discriminated against when they are told that the current interpretation of scientific method must be taught dogmatically, and must be accepted by students, to be eligible for admission to University of California institutions.” In other words, what the case involves is not so much the now-familiar tussle over intelligent design, but a student’s freedom of speech and thought.
All of which, counters the university, is bogus. As long as they satisfy the A-G requirements, students who are headed into the UC system can believe whatever they choose to and take whatever additional courses—including religious ones—they like. In any case, the university’s lawyers point out, there is plenty of precedent establishing a university’s right to control a student’s speech: witness a court ruling three years ago that a UC student did not have a first amendment right to write “fuck you” to university administrators in his master’s thesis.
In theory, the UC case stops at California’s borders: no other state’s public universities interfere so much in the high-school system, so their “secular intolerance”, real or imagined, is less potent. In practice, whatever happens in the current case, more such conflicts will follow.
For instance, when home-schooled children or students from private Christian schools apply to a public university, they are typically judged by their examination scores—and, typically, they are required to perform much better than their counterparts from the public schools. By the reckoning of the Calvary Chapel plaintiffs, a student from a Christian school in California needs to score within the top 2-4%, whereas a public-school teenager with good course-work could meet the required score almost by guesswork.
Given the growth across America in both home-schooling and Christian schooling, there will surely be more “viewpoint-discriminated” students and their parents contacting their lawyers. And evangelical America will keep pushing. Christian universities such as Wheaton, in Illinois, are proof that decent scholarship can co-exist with evangelical faith; and, given the rise of born-again Christianity across the nation, more evangelical scholars are now found in secular faculties.
Fifty years ago there were only a handful of “megachurches”, drawing more than 2,000 each Sunday; today, there are more than 1,200 such churches, three of them with congregations of over 20,000. Not only is the nation’s president a born-again Christian, but so (according to the Pew Research Centre) are 54% of America’s Protestants, who are 30% of the population.
Will America’s public universities take on a similar tinge? To the extent that educational establishments reflect cultural reality, it may be inevitable. After all, before the liberal era of the 1960s, there were no such things as courses in “Women’s Studies” or “African-American Studies”. Now, no prudent American university would be without them. It would be odd if conservative Christians did not leave similar footprints on the syllabus.