Instructors place all sorts of limits on students' term paper topics. But can they ban God from them?
That's the question being raised by an unusual legal dispute at Victor Valley Community College, in southern California. A student there -- backed by a national legal group that focuses on the rights of religious people -- says that she was given a failing grade on a term paper because she repeatedly mentioned God in the paper, against her instructor's wishes.
The legal group is demanding that the college change the grade and apologize to the student. The college is investigating the complaint and won't comment on the specifics of the case, except to say that the student didn't utilize the grievance process that was open to her at the college. And some faculty members say that their colleague had every right to restrict the topics he would accept for the term paper.
The student -- Bethany Hauf -- wrote a paper called "Religion and Its Place Within the Government," to fulfill a research paper requirement in English 101 this spring. Her instructor, Michael Shefchik, approved the topic. But according to Hauf, he imposed a restriction, sending her an e-mail message saying, "I have one limiting factor: no mention of the big 'G' gods, i.e. one, true god argumentation." After she handed in her paper with repeated references to God, Hauf says that Shefchik told her the highest possible grade she could receive on the paper was a 69, because she had ignored his instructions and her references to God could be "offensive" to other students. Taking off additional points for other matters, he gave Hauf a 49, a failing grade, she said.
Shefchik could not be reached for comment and an automatic e-mail reply indicated that he is away for the summer.
The American Center for Law and Justice is representing Hauf and threatening  to sue the college if it doesn't back down. "It is absolutely unbelievable that a student would be punished for presenting a thoughtful and well written paper that included references to God," said Jay Sekulow, a lawyer at the center, in a statement. Sekulow said that the instructor at Victor Valley had demonstrated "a profound hostility toward religious expression."
Bill Greulich, a spokesman for the college, said that officials there took the complaint "very seriously," and were investigating it. "It's a convoluted story and we don't have all the facts yet," he said.
While declining to discuss details of the case, Greulich stressed that Hauf had not exhausted her options at the college when she obtained legal help. She went to the department chair, Greulich said, but she had other internal options available to her and did not use them.
Greulich said he did not know the precise instructions Hauf was given, but said that it was not strange to have professors set guidelines for papers. "Instructors give specific instructions all the time," he said.
Some of his fellow adjuncts are backing Shefchik. One, Judith Pfeffer, published a letter in The Victor Valley Daily Press last week saying, "Students who refuse to follow their teacher's specific instructions should expect an unsatisfactory grade, just as employees who defy clear orders from their employer should expect appropriate consequences."