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Law Office Management

Nov. 2, 2006

First Amendment: Academic v. Religious Freedom

A federal case presents competing—and possibly irreconcilable—arguments under the First Amendment. By Bill Blum

By Bill Blum
      In the ongoing war between religious groups and public education, a federal case now making its way to trial promises to open up a new front, with each side advancing competing—and possibly irreconcilable—arguments under the First Amendment.
      According to Robert Tyler of Murrieta, who represents the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) and the Calvary Chapel Christian School of Murrieta, the lawsuit against the University of California (Ass'n of Christian Schools Internat'l v. Stearns, No. CV 05-06242 SJO (RZx)) was triggered by UC's refusal to grant qualifying college credit to three new Calvary courses in literature, government, and history being taught from a Christian perspective. "The university accepts all sorts of other courses taught by private religious schools," Tyler charges, "including one featuring an introduction to rabbinic literature. What they're doing with us is viewpoint discrimination."
      Together with well-known First Amendment attorney Wendell Bird of Atlanta, Georgia, Tyler (whose four children attend the Calvary School) drafted a 107-page complaint charging that UC had violated his clients' rights to freedom of speech and association and the free exercise of religion. Named in the complaint are UC's regents, the system's president, the director of undergraduate admissions, and other high-ranking officials.
      The defendants responded with a motion to dismiss, in which they not only denied all of ACSI's claims but also went one step further: They accused the plaintiffs of trying to undermine the regents' First Amendment right of academic freedom—a right, they contended, that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized in one form or another since the 1950s.
      But the suit remains very much alive. In fact, in August a federal district court in Los Angeles held that even though the regents and the individual defendants could not be held personally liable, the suit could proceed against the school officials in their official capacities. The ruling sets the stage for a major clash over the reach of the First Amendment.
      Both sides agree the stakes are high. "Mainstream America is happy to see someone standing up to the ivory tower elitist university system that is attempting to secularize America," says Tyler. "Enough is enough." Counters UC counsel Christopher Patti: "If the plaintiffs prevail, any person who objects to an academic standard on religious grounds will be able to claim an exemption. That's no way to run a university."

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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