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University sued over Islam reading assignment

GREENSBORO, North Carolina (CNN) -- Three students and a conservative Christian group have filed a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, alleging a summer reading assignment violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Greensboro by three unnamed incoming freshmen and the Family Policy Network, a Virginia-based nonprofit group that seeks to inform the public about moral issues.

UNC requires all incoming freshmen and transfer students to read a book over the summer and prepare a one-page report for discussion in the first weeks of school. This year's selection was "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations," which contains 35 passages from the sacred book of Islam.


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In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs said UNC is infringing upon the religious free exercise of its students and violating the First Amendment's clause against establishment of religion by forcing freshmen and transfers to study Islam against their will.

"We had hoped the university would see the error of its ways and correct this wrong without going to court," said Joe Glover, president of the Family Policy Network. "Unfortunately, the controversy only emboldened them to further divide students along the lines of their deeply held religious beliefs. It's really too bad it had to come to this."

Glover told CNN he objects to the book largely because it leaves out the more contentious passages of the Koran, such as the verses discussing treatment of women, Jews and Christians.

He cited verse 5:51 of the Koran, which advises Muslims not to take Jews and Christians as friends, and verse 9:5, which condones besieging disbelievers and pagans. Neither is included in the assigned book, he said.

"Drop in a book by Salman Rushdie or another critic alongside it -- give the students an opportunity to weigh the argument," said Glover. "But don't shield them from the truth about a religion that incites people to fly airplanes into buildings, killing 3,000 Americans at a time," he said, referring to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The school could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening. On its Web site, it said the summer reading program is required, but "if any students or their families are opposed to reading parts of the Qur'an because to do so is offensive to their own faith, they may choose not read the book."

Instead, the school said students should write a one-page report on why they chose not to read the assigned book.

Glover said he found that option just as objectionable because it "pitted students with religious views contrary to Islam against fellow students, faculty and members of the administration who either ascribe to Muslim views or sympathize with those who do."

He added, "The administration may as well line up their incoming students and ask the objectors to take one step forward. What freshman would want to do that?"

Glover said the Family Policy Network had made public in interviews that it was seeking plaintiffs, and "several" students contacted them about signing on to the lawsuit. The three students who ended up joining the suit are an evangelical Christian, a Catholic and a Jew, two of them male and one of them female.

"The common thread, apart from the opposition to the requirement itself," Glover said, "was every one of them was concerned about retaliation on the part of the faculty or being ostracized by members of the student body."

On its Web site, UNC says the summer reading program is aimed at stimulating discussion and critical thinking around a current topic and providing a common experience for incoming students. UNC says the book was chosen because of the West's longtime fascination with Islam, a fascination that has only intensified since September 11.

"'Approaching the Qur'an' is not a political document in any sense, and its evocation of moral 'reckoning' raises questions that will be timely for college students and reflective adults under any circumstances," the school said.

The 1999 book was translated and introduced by Michael Sells, a religion professor at Haverford College who teaches Islam, comparative religions and Middle Eastern love poetry.




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