WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Monday tersely turned down an attempt by a conservative Christian group to halt the University of North Carolina from using a text on the Islamic holy book, the Koran, to teach new students.
Without elaborating on the reasoning behind its decision, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., said lawyers for the Family Policy Network had "failed to satisfy the requirements" for halting the study program. The decision upheld a lower federal court ruling in Charlotte, N.C., last week allowing the university to use the book.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 28, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 10 inches; 372 words Type of Material: Correction
The Koran--An Aug. 20 story in Section A incorrectly quoted Haverford College professor Michael Sells' comments on the furor over using his text on Islam in seminars by University of North Carolina students. Sells said a proposed state bill to deny funding for the project showed "why we don't want state legislatures writing the curriculum for state educational institutions."
The lawsuit had become a dividing line between conservatives who questioned the use of uncritical texts on Islam after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and civil libertarians who feared a chilling effect on college campuses.
Even as lawyers relayed word of the ruling from Richmond, 180 UNC professors and administrators were sitting down Monday with more than 4,000 incoming freshmen and transfer students on the Chapel Hill campus, debating the introduction to the Koran that had been assigned as a summer reading project.
One of the group leaders was UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser, who said later that "we are clearly delighted with the ruling of the court."
Huddled for two hours in a classroom with 20 students, Moeser said the discussion group "spent a lot of time talking about religious commonalities."
Moeser added that several students, who came from small towns across the South, told him they had been "harassed for going to a university that would make them read this book. They were appalled at the lack of understanding of this project."
UNC Chapel Hill had assigned "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" to the 4,200 incoming students--who started the fall session this week--as part of an effort to better understand the religious underpinnings of Muslim culture.
A deeper knowledge of Islam, Moeser reasoned, "helps us from demonizing a whole group of people who are associated with being an enemy simply by practicing the same religion" as the Sept. 11 terrorists.
Family Policy Network officials had claimed that using the book uncritically was "indoctrination" and had questioned why author Michael Sells, a professor at Haverford College outside Philadelphia, had focused on passages in the Koran that could be viewed as inciting violence.
Terry Moffit, the network's chairman, insisted Monday from his Virginia office that the group was trying to prevent the school from forcing students to use the book "as a hard and fast requirement."
Saying the group had no plans to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, Moffit said he took the court's ruling as a victory, even though the use of Sells' book continued. UNC Chapel Hill, Moffit noted, had agreed in a court brief to allow students to be excused from reading the book if they submitted an essay explaining their religious objections.
"The UNC realized they had erred in making it a requirement," he said.
Moeser countered that the university had never intended to force students to learn the text. The reading project occurred before the official start of school, he said, and "there was never any penalty for nonparticipation."
Sells also said he was satisfied with the court's ruling, praising UNC Chapel Hill for doing "what a courageous university should do. The fact is that this controversy has allowed anger to fester about Islam generally and promoted people to go on the AM radio shows and on television."
The controversy also has had a useful side, Sells said, "allowing people to debate an emotional issue that needs to be talked through."
But Monday's court ruling has not completely settled the issue. The North Carolina House Appropriations Committee voted this month to ban using public funds for the UNC assignment unless other religions get similar attention. The bill is expected to be voted down in the state Senate, but it still looms.
"This is why you don't want state legislatures controlling religious instruction," Sells said.
"There are 500 known religions in the world."