A federal judge on Friday rejected a claim that the University of California violates private Christian high schools' freedom of speech and religion by not certifying certain courses for its college preparatory requirements. While Judge S. James Otero sided with the university system over the constitutional challenge, a future trial will determine whether the course approval process was fairly applied to cases cited in the lawsuit.
The University of California is virtually unique in the rigor it applies in assessing whether high school courses sufficiently prepare students for college. Known as "a-g" requirements, for seven main subject areas, the standards are "intended to ensure that students coming to the university are conversant with accepted educational and scientific content and methods of inquiry at the level required for UC students and typically expected of educated citizens in the competitive workforce," according to a 2005 statement.
"All courses are evaluated based on their academic merits, and we try very hard to make the same decisions no matter what school the course is submitted from," said Christopher M. Patti, a university lawyer.
The 2005 suit, Association of Christian Schools International v. Stearns, additionally disputed the university practice of not approving courses that use certain textbooks. Many educators in California and elsewhere were worried that the suit, if successful, would hinder universities' ability to insist that prospective applicants have a basic understanding of science and other topics.
"There are standards set for us in the university’s a-g guidelines that provide that courses have to have certain subject matter content and have to teach skills such as critical thinking, evaluation of evidence and that sort of thing that are important for students to have when they come to the university, so we evaluate those criteria when we are reviewing courses, really without regard to the school that submits the course," Patti said. "Now, in some of these circumstances courses use textbooks that were evaluated by the university and determined that the textbooks really did not either teach the substantive material adequately or teach those kinds of critical thinking skills adequately and therefore the judgment was made that courses that used those … would not be approved."
The system's statement further explains the criteria: "The question the university must confront in reviewing these texts is not whether they have religious content, but whether they provide a comprehensive view of the relevant subject matter, reflecting knowledge generally accepted in the scientific and educational communities and with which a student at the university level should be conversant." Students who don't complete approved courses may also take standardized tests in the given areas as a substitute.
The court found that the university's course approval system was a reasonable component of its admissions process and that it did not discriminate based on religion. A separate trial will consider whether the plaintiffs' rejected courses in biology, history, government, English and religion were dismissed in accordance with stated UC policy.
"[A] reasonable person would not find the primary effect of the UC course review process to be inhibition of religion," the judge wrote. "UC approves many courses that include religious perspectives or are submitted by religious schools. Additionally, an informed observer would be aware of the controversial nature of intelligent design and creation as scientific beliefs."
An example provided by the university illustrates a primary textbook -- published by Bob Jones University Press -- for a course not approved for college prep. The introduction states: “The people who have prepared this book have tried consistently to put the Word of God first and science second. To the best of the author’s knowledge, the conclusions drawn from observable facts that are presented in this book agree with the Scriptures. If a mistake has been made (which is probable since this book was prepared by humans) and at any point God's Word is not put first, the author apologizes.”
The courses in question aren't only in biology. History, literature and other courses -- for example, one called "Christianity’s Influence on America" -- have been rejected as well. The ACSI, which brought the suit on behalf of Calvary Chapel Christian Schools of Murrieta, Calif., argued that the university system's policies effectively institutionalized discrimination against Christians.
"ACSI believes it’s wrong for the state to discriminate against Christians -- essentially foreclosing opportunities at state universities -- because of unfair religious prejudice by UC personnel, particularly when UC can’t cite any objective evidence that graduates from Christian schools using these textbooks perform any less well in their freshman year of university than graduates from secular schools," says a document describing the organization's legal position.
The group has also suggested that other religiously inspired courses, but from Muslim or Buddhist points of view, have been approved by the university. Patti said no such evidence has been presented so far.