Appeals court won't bar students from reading and discussing book about Qur'an
Just hours before 4,200 freshmen and transfer students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were scheduled to discuss a book about the Qur'an that university officials assigned over the summer, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied an injunction that would have stopped it.

Three anonymous freshman and the conservative Christian Family Policy Network had sued the school over its assignment of Michael Sells's Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, saying it amounted to religious indoctrination.

The organization's main beef wasn't necessarily that the college was informing students about Islam, but that it wasn't informing them about Islam's violent side. "We do not believe the university is trying to indoctrinate in the sense of strict proselytizing," said the students' chief lawyer. "The goal is not to convert them to Islam but to coerce them into believing a positive view of the religion."

A lower federal judge had denied an injunction on Thursday, rejecting the organization's claim that the assignment infringed on religious freedom. He pointed out that the school offered students the option not to read the book (and instead write a one-page response about why they didn't). Furthermore, no grades are given at the "required" seminars where the book was to be discussed by the freshmen—faculty don't even take attendance, and last year only about half the students showed up. "In other words, a student who elects not to read the book is not penalized in any way," said Judge N. Carlton Tilley Jr.

After that ruling, Family Policy Network president Joe Glover called it a victory. "The judge said there is no required reading, there's no requirement to attend Monday and there's no requirement for students to reveal their innermost religious thoughts," he told The News & Observer of Raleigh. "I would submit to you that everything has changed. This is one of those rare instances where a loss is actually a great victory."

The American Family Association didn't see it that way, and its Center for Law and Policy appealed the case to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Glover was similarly upbeat about today's ruling. "Just about everyone has learned something new as a result of this controversy," he says in a statement on the organization's website. "Taxpayers and legislators learned educrats think no one should hold them accountable. UNC administrators learned religious instruction can't be required. And millions of Americans have learned there's a dark side to Islam that left-wing liberals would rather hide from everyone else."

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Many of the students, however, are already tired of the debate—even before the official discussions begin at 1 p.m. eastern time. "I really just think it's become such a mess that people are just, like, 'Who cares anymore?' " freshman Lauren Brown told The News & Observer. "People have become apathetic to it."

Not everyone, however. Newspapers around the country continue to editorialize on the assignment.

What the Family Policy Network and other critics "really oppose is the effort to study Islam objectively, without presuming at the outset that it is inherently evil," The New York Times says today in a particularly nasty editorial. "Let's hope for the sake of the students and the state as a whole that their despicable efforts fail."

The religious conservatives were working against their own earlier victories, says USA Today. Had the court ruled in their favor, the paper said last week, it "would set back a tradition of treating religion as a valid subject for public classrooms." The editorial adds, "Instead of encouraging much-needed understanding of different cultures, critics of the book risk fueling animosity toward an entire religion because of the actions of a fringe group of fanatics." Is it talking about Islam or Christianity?

The critics' argument are beside the point, argues The Christian Science Monitor. "It's hard to imagine that student discussions won't delve into the contrast between what they've read and radical Islamists' call for jihad against perceived enemies of Islam. That's a useful discussion. … The hate-filled interpretations that try to justify the taking of innocent life impel a harder look at just what this world religion teaches." Regardless, says the Monitor, "Learning about another religion should be no threat to one's own."

This isn't an isolated case, argues Slate's William Saletan. Instead, it's part of religious right activists' efforts to cast themselves as underdogs:

What do these complaints add up to? Let's see: The university is coercing students by requiring them to write about why they don't want to write about any of the open-ended questions the university asked them to write about. The assigned reading … is unconstitutionally pro-Muslim because it's insufficiently anti-Muslim. And it's insensitive not just to require such reading, but to allow it.

This is what "intimidation," "discrimination," and "sensitivity" have come to. Words that once accurately described cross burnings, housing covenants, and slurs are now being used to describe the superficial emotional wounds that come from living and debating in a free society. This dilution is being perpetrated not just by the left but by the right as well. … Religious bigotry isn't gone. It just goes by the name of religious freedom.

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Only The Wall Street Journal sides with the freshmen. "Apparently the guardians of the Establishment Clause decided that compulsory religious study is OK if it helps a university promote the politically correct view of Islam," the paper said. "It's hard to imagine the ACLU exhibiting the same large-mindedness toward a state university that demanded all freshmen read the New Testament or the Torah and meditate on the teachings and liturgical music."

As for the argument that the students shouldn't focus on the Qur'an's violent parts because the Bible has them too, the Journal replies, "The next time a terrorist cites Joshua as his rationale for murdering thousands of innocent civilians, let us know."

Actually, says James Bowman in National Review Online, the entire argument that students should study Islam because of 9/11 is spurious. "We don't even know if the hijackers were believing Muslims. Certainly, some of the things they did while living undercover in this country were inconsistent with such belief," he says. "The sad fact is that, like most academic studies these days, the UNC teach-in is all for the sake of making the teachers feel better, and more virtuous, for showing off their own tolerance in public. And why does the state sponsor that?"

The debate isn't over yet. On Thursday, a committee of the UNC Board of Governors will debate academic freedom. The college is still reeling from the board's failure to affirm it earlier this month. And as for the school, the more controversy the better, says the university's chancellor, James Moeser. "The faculty has succeeded in choosing a book that is provocative in the best sense of the word, provocative of inquiry, even controversy," he told the Associated Press. "Universities thrive on controversy."

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