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Faith and Health, Part II

September 12, 2005

Facing a lawsuit charging it with intermingling church and state, the University of Minnesota has dropped plans to offer a set of courses on the intersection of faith and health.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin nonprofit group, had sued the university in March, saying that its involvement in the Minnesota Faith Health Consortium, a partnership with Luther Seminary, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and Fairview Health Services, a health care organization, entangled the public institution inappropriately with the promotion of religion. Among the group’s goals, according to its Web site, were increasing understanding of the links between religious faith and health, and “enhancing leadership capacity to link faith and health.”
 
In July, the university withdrew from the consortium, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation pressed its lawsuit because Minnesota continued to plan to offer the Faith/Health Clinical Leadership program, a set of three courses jointly sponsored by the university, the seminary and Fairview. Materials promoting the program described it as a “pioneering effort” to “prepare students from a variety of professional backgrounds for a role in faith/health leadership.”

Course materials described one of the three courses, “Healer’s Journey,” for instance, as letting students “reflect on their own personal, professional, and spiritual values as a means of assisting others to use their own spiritual background for enhancing their own well-being and healing.”

In discussions with lawyers for the foundation, Minnesota officials first reworked the name and proposed content of the course. But this month, after continued negotiations, the university confirmed in a letter to the foundation's lawyers that it would not offer the course, which led the Freedom From Religion Foundation to declare "complete victory." 

"We have halted a serious First Amendment violation, a partnership between a public university and religious organizations to promote religion to students and patients that was intended to serve as a national model," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation's co-president. In return, the foundation dropped its lawsuit.

In an interview, Mark B. Rotenberg, Minnesota's general counsel, said that the university believed strongly that "mingling faith indoctrination or religious indoctrination or advocacy does not mix with a public institution," and that "it is certainly true that reasonable people, including the foundation here, could see a potential church-state difficulty with the course."

But Rotenberg said that it was never clear that the proposed course would have dealt with religion in an unconstitutional way, because its curriculum had never been finalized. "We'll never know exactly," he said. "Until a professor finalizes the syllabus, walks into the classroom and starts teaching, a university cannot be certain, nor should it dictate, what will happen in that classroom."

Rotenberg also played down the meaningfulness of what the university had given up. "We agreed that we wouldn't offer that particular course under that particular title," he said. "We don't see this as a watershed event or a concession of our academic freedom to engage in wide ranging research or outreach related to faith-based care." The university plans to continue to focus some work in its medical center on "end of life and elder care," he said, and "faith based systems play a large role in care of the elderly and the chronically and terminally ill."

"The University of Minnesota comes out of this without any more legal restrictions on its ability to engage in teaching, research and outreach than we had before the case started," Rotenberg added.

Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that the university risked future legal action if it tried to offer any kind of course that "crossed the line into promotion of religion. "Let's face it: This course was never taught only because we sued," she said.

"And we would go back and reinstate our lawsuit if they did under some other name what we sued to stop them to do."

 

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