A university's summer reading assignment to its incoming first-year students in the southern U.S. state of North Carolina has become a major controversy and now a legal battle. Two conservative Christian groups are suing the state owned University of North Carolina for requiring all freshmen to read selected passages from the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book.
Every year, the University of North Carolina requires first-year students to read a book and join in discussion groups during their first week on campus, in late August.
The controversy began when conservative Christian groups objected to this year's assignment, Approaching the Qur'an, a selection of Muslim holy writings by religion professor Michael Sells. The book also contains a compact disc featuring Muslim calls to prayer.
In July, the American Family Association and the Family Policy Network sued the university, saying it forced first-year students to read a selection presenting an incomplete and overly favorable picture of Islam.
"You got students reading one translation of approximately one third of the Qur'an, which passages emphasize only one side of the religion of Islam, which is the peaceful and meditative side," said Stephen Crampton, who works with the American Family Association. "There is a whole other angle to it, which the students are being denied and which cries out for discussion and debate in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks."
On August 15, a U.S. federal court denied the Christian groups' request for an injunction blocking this year's reading requirement. However, the plaintiffs are carrying on with their lawsuit, in hopes they say, of a court decision that would ban similar reading requirements in the future.
Mr. Crampton has no problems with students reading Approaching the Qur'an, as long as they do so voluntarily. He says the requirement is an illegal endorsement of Islam by a public, state-owned university.
Also, Mr. Crampton said the court's upholding the University of North Carolina's reading requirement shows a judicial double standard against Christianity and in favor of Islam in education policy.
"In a nutshell, you have courts which have not even hesitated to strike down the use of even voluntary student-led prayer in schools," he explained. "By contrast, what you have here is at least a preliminary ruling that says that it's perfectly fine for a state university to force students to read the Qur'an. That's a religious exercise that would be stricken in a heartbeat if it were a Christian exercise."
However, according to University of North Carolina Chancellor James Moeser, the point of the reading and discussion groups was to teach about Islam and not to teach Islam itself.
"Religion is a part of the canon of the study of the humanities and it's an absolutely appropriate thing for us to study," he said. "What's not appropriate for us is to advocate a point of view and we have not and would never do that."
Professor Moeser also said the reading assignment was meant to generate discussion about Islam rather than give a full and complete picture of that religion. However, he does admit that some of the criticism of the book is warranted, since Approaching the Qur'an does not deal with the parts of the Muslim holy book some have used to justify violence.
"There was definitely some discussion of September 11 in my discussion group," he said. "I think our students were puzzled, how you could get from these texts to any acts of violence because the texts we were reading are pacific in nature, it's beautiful lyric poetry that's very much like the Old Testament psalms or the proverbs. And that's of course one of the criticisms of the book that the book did not include any of the texts that deal with the later political developments of the Islamic state that are political as much as theological."
In any event, Professor Moeser said, the students were invited to make up their minds and reach their own conclusions, after they read Approaching the Qur'an.
Stephen Crampton of the American Family Association said he expects the matter to come up before a federal court once again, within the next six months.