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Rights Clash in Bias Suit Against UC

Times Staff Writer

To Pastor Des Starr, the superintendent of a small religious school in Riverside County, the case is about protecting the freedom of his private institution to teach its students from a conservative Christian perspective.

To the University of California, it is about defending the public university system’s ability to set standards for admission to its campuses.

And to many others, it represents a potentially significant new front in America’s often bitter tug of war between church and state.

In a case said by both sides to be the first of its kind, Calvary Chapel Christian School of Murrieta and a group representing 4,000 Christian schools nationwide filed suit against UC this summer, accusing the university of discriminating against them by setting admissions rules that violate their rights to freedom of speech and religion.

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The university denies the claims, saying schools are free to teach material they wish but that UC must be able to reject high school courses that offer more religious than academic content or that do not meet its standards. For this school year, UC refused to give Calvary students admission credit for an English class, Christianity and Morality in American Literature, and a history course, Christianity’s Influence in America.

A federal judge in Los Angeles is expected to rule soon on a UC motion to dismiss some claims in the case, but much of the suit is expected to go forward. Six Calvary students, along with the school and the Assn. of Christian Schools International, are the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit is being tracked by Christian educators, free speech advocates and higher education officials, who say it could affect admissions policies nationwide.

“This is potentially an extremely important case,” said John C. Green, senior fellow in religion and politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, D.C. “It gets at the issue of admissions criteria for public universities, but has ramifications beyond that, and not just for conservative Christians.” Advocates of home-schooling and other alternative forms of education, he said, also are likely to watch it closely.

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The lawsuit has thrust Starr and his school of 1,300 students -- from kindergarteners to 12th-graders -- into unaccustomed and occasionally uncomfortable national prominence.

One morning last week, the superintendent gave visitors a tour of the campus, about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

In a biology class, which had the words “Do It All For the Glory of God” in block letters above the whiteboard, several students gave a presentation on cell division.

In a Bible studies class, a bulletin board on one wall displayed college application information and pennants for UCLA, Harvard, Baylor and other schools.

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“I would never have thought I’d be getting postcards from New York, Michigan, Ohio and states in between,” said Starr, also a pastor in Calvary’s parent church, an evangelical congregation. “But this is a Christian lawsuit against a government entity, and people are interested.”

The case also has cast a spotlight on the role the UC system has long played in setting standards for and certifying classes at public and private high schools throughout the state.

At issue is UC’s entrance requirement that most students pass a series of approved courses in such areas as English, math and science, in addition to obtaining a certain level of grades in those classes and scores on standardized tests.

For this school year, UC officials said, about 7,000 courses -- in core subjects as well as electives -- were submitted for approval. Of those, about 35% were turned down, a higher percentage than in years past, partly because of confusion at many high schools over a new UC requirement in the performing and visual arts, said Susan Wilbur, UC admissions director.

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The most common reasons to reject courses are because they are not considered academically rigorous enough or because the schools provide too little information, Wilbur said. Other courses may be turned down because they are deemed biased or too narrowly focused.

Calvary and other religious schools contend that UC is engaging in “viewpoint discrimination.” Specifically, they claim that the university is biased against courses taught from a conservative Christian viewpoint, while generally approving of those from many other religious and political perspectives.

“What business is it of the state to say what viewpoints are acceptable and which are not?” asked Wendell R. Bird, an Atlanta attorney who represents the Christian schools association, which has about 800 member schools in California and 4,000 nationally.

The university, he noted, has approved courses from other schools on Buddhism, Islam, Jewish history and the effects of feminism and counterculture on literature but turned down Calvary’s submissions in history and literature, as well as a government class titled Special Providence: Christianity and the American Republic.

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In recent years, UC also has rejected biology and physics courses submitted by several schools -- although not Calvary -- that relied on textbooks from two leading conservative Christian publishers, Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book.

In 1986, Bird argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, and lost, a case in which he represented Louisiana in its effort to teach creationism alongside evolution in public schools. He and other attorneys for the schools in the Calvary case say it is not primarily about science courses but about broader issues.

UC officials are “using their discretion in such a way that it constitutes discrimination,” said Robert H. Tyler, a Temecula attorney who represents the school.

UC attorneys and administrators, however, said the disputed courses did not meet academic standards or were biased in approach. They said there was no basis for the claim that the university discriminates against students from Christian schools or those of any other religion.

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“The idea that the university wants to exclude students from religious schools is just not true,” said UC counsel Christopher M. Patti. “It accepts hundreds if not thousands of students from these schools every year and values the diversity of views these students bring to its campuses.”

In the last four years, for instance, UC has admitted 24 of 32 applicants from Calvary Chapel’s Murrieta school, Patti said. The university also has certified 43 of the school’s courses under UC’s college preparatory guidelines, he said.

“We’re only setting preparatory requirements for our own admission purposes,” Patti said. “The religious schools can continue to be as religious as they like, but the university has a right to set its admission standards.”

UC officials said university approval often involves discussion with high schools, with proposed courses revised and resubmitted, sometimes several times. But in this case, the sides were unable to reach agreement.

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In an apparent effort to head off the lawsuit, several legislators, including Assemblywoman Sharon Runner (R-Lancaster), arranged a meeting between UC administrators and representatives of Christian schools in Sacramento in May 2004. Several of those involved said the hourlong discussion was amicable but ended without resolution.

Starr and the school’s attorney declined to allow the six student plaintiffs to be interviewed. According to the complaint, two are seniors, two are juniors and two are sophomores; all hope to attend UC.

Senior Cody Young is described as a varsity basketball player and with good grades and test scores who hopes to attend UC San Diego to major in aerospace engineering. Another senior, identified only by the initials M.T., is the president of the school’s National Honor Society, is interested in drama and hopes to attend UC Irvine.

Starr said a majority of the school’s graduates go to religious colleges, but many want the option of attending a UC or other public university.

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Burt Carney, legislative director for the Christian schools association, said eligibility for UC and other public and private universities is of great importance. “If your students can go to the University of California, it’s like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” he said.


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