On the Contrary

It's a summer of stupid lawsuits. Food "addicts" are suing McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and KFC, claiming that the fast-food industry creates cravings for unhealthy food and fails to provide consumers with nutritional information. (They might as well sue their parents for failing to provide them with common sense.) A female passenger is suing Delta Airlines for negligence, sexual discrimination and intentional affliction of emotional distress, because security agents asked her to hold up a vibrator packed in her mysteriously vibrating suitcase. (If this is her idea of actionable emotional distress and discrimination, you have to wonder how she gets through the day.)

Conservative advocates of tort reform love frivolous cases such as these, overstating their occurrence and using them to promote a misleading image of a legal system overcome by weak, whiny clients and the greedy lawyers who encourage them. In fact, plaintiffs' lawyers who handle personal injury and civil-rights cases often provide the only hope of redress for ordinary people harmed by unsafe or unfair business practices -- the ordinary people for whom compassionate conservatives supposedly care.

So it's amusing -- in fact, it's downright delightful -- to report that what may be the summer's stupidest, whiniest lawsuit was initiated by a group of religious conservatives. The Virginia-based Family Policy Network (FPN) sued the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) for asking incoming freshmen to read selections from the Koran and accompanying commentaries by religion professor Michael Sells. Students were also required to write a paper and participate in a discussion about the book; those who found reading about Islam abhorrent were given the option of writing a paper explaining why they chose not to read the book. (The disputed book is Approaching the Qur'án, edited and translated by Sells.) The lawsuit (quickly rejected in federal court) was prepared by the American Family Association, with which the FPN is affiliated. It claims that this assignment attempts "to indoctrinate students in religious belief and to promote a particular religion."

It seems beyond dispute, however, that this book was assigned for pedagogical, not evangelical, purposes. No sane person would believe that UNC administrators are intent on converting incoming freshmen to Islam or infusing them with particular Islamic values. "We expect Carolina students as part of their education to learn about ideas, philosophies and practices that they never encountered before and that may differ from their own," UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser has explained. "We chose [Approaching the Qur'án] because, since September 11, many of us have wondered what the core teachings of Islam really are."

You might think that conservative Christian groups would be among the first to insist that schools have a right (maybe even a responsibility) to teach about religion. You wouldn't expect people who favor official school prayer to balk at academic discussions of religious ideals, except that groups such as the Family Policy Network are interested in preaching, not teaching. In other words, they favor a sectarian approach to religious education in public schools. As FPN President Joe Glover has indicated (in a typically incoherent interview on the Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes), he would not object to teaching about Christianity. How, then, does FPN justify opposition to teaching about Islam? Glover complains that Sells' book presents too sympathetic a view of Islam because it omits passages of the Koran that express "hate and vitriol toward Christian and Jews."

Sells explains that his purpose was "not to make a judgment about Islam" but to introduce students to the religion's key theological concepts. If he were preparing a book about the Bible to teach about Christian or Jewish theology, he adds, he would not focus on its many passages filled with hate, vitriol and violence. Rather, he'd omit excerpts from the Book of Joshua, for example, as well as the statement from the gospels that "Jews have the blood of Jesus on their hands," that has been used to persecute Jews down through the centuries.

"I'm not sure whether that's relevant," Glover says, referring to Christian claims that "the Jews killed Christ," as a teenage boy informed me years ago. And Glover may have an inadvertent point: With religious conservatives enthusiastically supporting Israel, thanks to their mythologies about its role in Armageddon, anti-Semitism on the right, while not exactly irrelevant, has surely become impolitic. In fact, the FPN's lawsuit against UNC included as plaintiffs three anonymous students: one evangelical Christian, one Catholic and one Jew.

This silly case never had much chance of succeeding in federal court, but it may still be a good fundraising opportunity for the FPN and its allies. Already, it's being used to castigate the American Civil Liberties Union (on whose national board I serve) for declining to support the suit. Instead, the North Carolina ACLU affiliate sent a measured letter to the university, asking it to establish guidelines for implementing the assignment and reminding it of the responsibility to teach and not preach, to respect religious privacy and to not stigmatize any students for their beliefs.

If you're as outraged as some religious conservatives by the ACLU's failure to condemn teaching about world religions, and its refusal to "side with Christians and Jews" in their battle to ensure ignorance of Islam, you can add your name to a petition at www.conservativepetitions.com. "Tell the ACLU to defend Christians and Jews, too," the headline on the Web page screams, with unconscious irony. Does this mean they'll stop calling us the ACLJew?