A group of Christian schools sued the University of California in federal court last week, charging that it engages in religious discrimination by refusing to certify certain high school courses at religious schools as meeting the system's admissions requirements.
The courses in question teach alternatives to evolution, including creationism and "intelligent design." But the dispute goes beyond science to other courses taught from a "Christian perspective."
"All viewpoints are perfectly acceptable until they are Christian," said Wendell R. Bird, an Atlanta lawyer who is representing the Association of Christian Schools International in the suit. The suit charges that the university system's rules violate the First Amendment's protections on free expression and freedom of religion.
University officials declined to comment on the specifics of the suit until they can study it. But professors at UC say that it is not only appropriate but essential for the university to stick to its guns on what counts as a high school science course.
At issue are the university's requirements for high school courses for those seeking admission to one of the system's campuses. Almost all students who are admitted to the university are evaluated based on test scores and grades in certain college preparatory classes. High schools submit course outlines for eligibility, which is based on standards adopted by the university.
According to Bird, Christian schools in the last year have started to have courses rejected, making it next to impossible for their students to earn admission to the university system.
The science courses that have been rejected, he said, teach either creationism or "intelligent design" as alternatives to evolution, but they also teach "the standard content of evolution," even if the teachers do not believe that content.
Bird said that literature courses have also been rejected. "These courses do what, 100 years ago, the public schools regularly do. They select portions of books and short stories that would be uplifting, that would teach Christian virtues, and that would teach moral character," he said.
The university system approves courses and offers its own courses "from Buddhist, Jewish, feminist and other viewpoints," Bird said. "This is picking one viewpoint and banning it for being Christian."
Asked if the university would be correct to deny certification to a geography course that taught that the world is flat, Bird said that that wasn't a fair example, and that there was "no evidence" that graduates of schools where creationist or intelligent design theories are taught alongside evolution have any less capability in science.
Bird stressed that the students in the schools are taught that evolution "is what a majority of scientists believe," and so have no difficulty understanding its concepts.
While Bird said he did not know what books are used in the schools whose courses are being rejected, the school that brought the issue to the Christian schools' group's attention is the Calvary Chapel Christian School, whose Web site says that it uses for its high school curriculum materials from such publishers as Abeka and Bob Jones University Press.
The former, according to its Web site, publishes science material that "presents the universe as the direct creation of God and refutes the man-made idea of evolution." The latter publishes books such as The Flood and the Fossils, which says it explores "evidence from the fossil record, which supports the biblical view regarding the flood and disproves the evolutionary view."
Professors at the University of California praise the university for requiring applicants to have been taught evolution.
"If you don't understand evolution, you don't understand biology. If you don't understand biology, you don't understand modern science," said Albert F. Bennett, chair of ecology and evolutionary biology at the university's Irvine campus. "A student ill-versed in science is poorly prepared for university-level work."
Such students, Bennett said, "will be incapable of understanding or helping to achieve the many benefits of modern biology, such as crop improvement, cancer therapies, and avoidance of antibiotic resistance, that critically depend on evolutionary theory." As a result, he added, "the university has an obligation to ensure that entering students are properly prepared for a university-level education."
Many of the challenges to evolution have, since the Scopes trial, centered on the public schools. And recent statements by President Bush and others, suggesting that intelligent design and evolution be taught as competing theories, have also focused on elementary and secondary education. But colleges are increasingly being drawn into the debate as well.
In April, numerous academic scientists boycotted hearings planned by the Kansas Board of Education to debate the concepts of evolution and creationism.
Ohio State University called off a dissertation defense in June amid concerns that a graduate student was about to be awarded a doctorate, in part, for showing how to change student attitudes about evolution. Scientists at Ohio State said they worried that the student's committee lacked experts to question the science being offered to criticize evolution.
At Iowa State University, more than 100 faculty members last week signed a letter saying that they "reject all attempts to represent Intelligent Design as a scientific endeavor."
Likewise, an increasing number of scholars are telling general audiences that there is no scientific debate to be had about the general concepts of evolution. In Sunday's New York Times, Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University, writes that intelligent design is a "hoax," and rebuts many of the arguments put forward by its supporters, saying that in the end, there is no science of substance behind the challengers to evolution.
In his piece, Dennett talks about how easy it would be for "a determined band of naysayers" to challenge other scientific theories that, like evolution, may be difficult for many people to fully comprehend. But, he writes, physicists have been fortunate not to have "a band of mischief makers" attacking the theory of relativity or quantum physics.
For scholars who are desperate not to get depressed over the attacks on evolution, the satirical Web site The Onion offers just the kind of attack Dennett says non-evolutionary scientists are avoiding. In this Web site's world of parody, the theory of gravity is being attacked for failing to reflect the force of God behind things that fall to the ground. How can we explain why things fall? "Intelligent Falling."