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Christian school loses UC case

A judge rules that the university was not discriminatory in its refusal to count certain classes toward admission.

August 13, 2008|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

The University of California did not violate students' freedom of expression and religion when it rejected some classes at a Riverside-area Christian school from counting toward UC admission, a Los Angeles federal judge has ruled.

In a case that has attracted significant attention in religious and academic circles nationwide since it was filed in 2005, the judge upheld the university's decision to disqualify several classes offered by Calvary Chapel Christian School of Murrieta for being too narrow or not academically rigorous enough to fulfill UC's entrance requirements.

In a final ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero said UC demonstrated a rational basis for rejecting Calvary Christian's English, history, government and religion courses and did not display any "animus" toward the school or its Christian doctrines.

The university's policy was constitutional despite allegations by the students and school of an anti-Christian bias, the judge said.

The decision will be appealed, said attorney Robert Tyler, who represents Calvary Christian, its student plaintiffs and a group of 4,000 Christian schools nationwide. Tyler said Tuesday that he was disappointed by Otero's ruling but was confident a higher court would find that UC violated the law by rejecting the classes for their religious content. The attorney also said the district judge had applied overly restrictive standards to the bias allegations.

All five students named in the case have since graduated from the school and two are enrolled at UC Riverside, where they were admitted based on their grades in other, UC-approved courses at Calvary Christian, Tyler said. But he said the case was important to pursue for current and future students nationwide.

The Assn. of Christian Schools International joined the case in arguing that UC was attempting to force Christian schools to water down their religious teachings.

"This case is about the future of private religious education and the right to be able to have your kids learn from a religious perspective," said Tyler, who is general counsel for a religious liberty law firm in Murrieta named Advocates for Faith and Freedom.

His four children attend Calvary Christian, which enrolls about 1,300 students in kindergarten through high school.

UC officials said they felt vindicated by the court decision, which followed a related ruling in March that upheld the university's practice of approving high school classes. Friday's decision shows that UC "has been totally within its legal rights to apply admission standards across the board to all students and has been doing that in an appropriate way," university counsel Christopher Patti said Tuesday.

If UC had lost the case, the 10-campus system's ability to set and control academic standards would have been "seriously undermined" and the door opened to all sorts of admission exemptions, Patti said.

In documents presented in the case, UC representatives pointed out that the university has certified more than 50 other courses at Calvary Christian as meeting UC's admission standards. UC said that it accepts courses from hundreds of schools affiliated with various faiths and that courses from Christian schools are approved at the same rate as those submitted by others.

The university said it had rejected, for example, an English class at Calvary Christian called "Christianity and Morality in American Literature" in part because students read excerpts from a literature anthology without having to read at least some complete books, as UC requires.

Historians testifying for the university said that a history class titled "Christianity's Influence on America" failed to teach critical thinking and relied on a book that attributed historical events to divine providence. The book also contained inadequate material about non-Christian groups, the historians said.

The case could influence admission practices at public colleges nationwide, said David Masci, a senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, D.C. "No one is questioning the right of Calvary Chapel to teach what they want to teach. But what the case says is that when you do that, there may be consequences," Masci said Tuesday.

At one point in the long-running case, Judge Otero upheld UC's rejection of another school's biology class that used a text that dismissed evolution in favor of biblical accounts of creation. That part of the decision "continued a long line of cases where challenges to the teaching of evolution have been essentially pushed back," Masci said.

Among the most important such decisions came in 2005 when a federal judge ruled that the school board in Dover, Pa., could not force biology teachers to present so-called intelligent design -- a theory that a creator is responsible for the universe -- as an alternative to Charles Darwin's findings on evolution.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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