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Separating Church and (Iowa) State

January 18, 2012

Everyone agrees a recently canceled Iowa State University class on the role of the Bible in business is a First Amendment issue.

As to what that issue is, opinions vary.

Critics say the class, Application of Biblical Insight into the Management of Business/Organization, which finance professor Roger Stover planned to teach until his department chair pulled the course listing, breached the separation between church and state.

Stover, who declined to comment for this story, wrote in his course description that the one-credit independent study would have shown how Biblical concepts can be applied in the business world. When challenged by other professors, he maintained that the pass-fail course, which was to use How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK: A Biblical Blueprint to Bless Your Business by Christian leadership speaker Dave Anderson as its sole textbook, was academically relevant.

The decision to stop the class prompted one student newspaper columnist to argue the material was in line with the First Amendment and should have been offered, and another columnist to cite the Constitution in opposing the class.

But that was after a trio of Iowa State professors started a faculty movement to shut down the class, first by writing a letter to administrators and then by circulating a petition. “It was obvious he was going to be teaching a Sunday school class and giving credit for it,” said Warren Blumenfeld, an associate education professor who helped draft both the letter and petition.  “This is a violation of the First Amendment. This is not teaching world religions or even one religion, but one concept of one religion.”

Blumenfeld also took issue with the textbook, which on page 173 reads “business partnerships with nonbelievers are strongly discouraged.”

Rick Dark, finance department chair, said the class was not subjected to the usual vetting process because it was an independent study. He agreed with many of the points made by the concerned professors and closed registration in the class. Stover is not appealing the decision.

Stover has been an Iowa State faculty member since 1979; his curriculum vitae lists a college award for outstanding research and dozens of articles published in finance journals about everything from debt markets to airline deregulation. The document doesn’t mention an article he wrote for the Ames First Evangelical Free Church's website, which Iowa State religious studies professor Hector Avalos fears was the basis of the independent study course.

The article, "Searching God’s Word: A New Approach, Case Studies of Decisions Faced by Believers," includes seven uses of “Biblical insight,” echoing the title of his proposed Iowa State course and signaling to Avalos that the article for the local church could be Stover's basis for the class. The article includes a hypothetical situation in which a retiree debates between starting a small business and accepting a ministry position, and another in which a couple struggles to raise the funds necessary to become missionaries.

While no syllabus was posted online and Stover wasn’t available to clarify what role, if any, the church article would play in his class, an entry in the course catalog said “the goal of this seminar is to employ the Bible for insight into handling the vital issues faced in a business.”

That might be a valid course topic at a private institution, Avalos and Blumenfeld said, but not at public universities like Iowa State.

Fearing Stover’s course was inappropriate, Blumenfeld, Avalos and another faculty member sent a letter to the dean of the business college in October saying the class should be canceled. Unsure of whether their advice had been heeded, Blumenfeld and Avalos circulated a petition among faculty members this month and collected 20 signatures asking that the course be called off.  When Avalos learned Dark had closed the class and removed it from course listings in December, he changed the petition to encourage administrators to not reinstate it.

But the Alliance Defense Fund, which advocates for the rights of religious students and faculty members, believes Iowa State erred. After making adjustments to ensure the class was taught objectively, an ADF lawyer said, Iowa State should have allowed the class to continue. (Dark said there simply wasn't enough time to review the course before the spring.)

“It is a shame that certain academics and groups on the left … would rather engage in educational censorship than allow true academic freedom,” ADF senior counsel David Cortman wrote in a statement released to Inside Higher Ed. “Any objections to the method of teaching the course could have been addressed without canceling the entire course.”

 

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