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UNC Students Engage In Group Discussions About Quran

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RICHMOND, VA. — Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began discussions about the holy book of Islam hours after a federal appeals court refused to stop the discussions from taking place.

Sixteen students participated in Carl Ernst's discussiongroup on the book, titled "Approaching the Qu'ran: The EarlyRevelations." The group led by the religion professor was one of several groups that met Monday about the book.

Ernst says the attention allowed the school to show the publichow it teaches religion in an impartial way.

About 4,200 incoming freshman and transfer students wereassigned to read about 130 pages of "Approaching the Qur'an: TheEarly Revelations," by Michael Sells, a religion professor atHaverford College.

Before the discussions took place, a group of students held a lunchtime gathering in the center of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus on behalf of free speech.

At the rally, Gary Birdsong of Knightdale held a sign saying, "Reality: Heaven or Hell. It's YourChoice. "

Birdsong said the country was founded on Christianity, not onthe Quran, and that if students are required to read the Quran, whynot the Bible and other religious books.

Attorneys for a conservative Christian group on Friday had askedthe 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to stop Monday'sdiscussion sessions of a book that interprets the Islamic holytext. Members of the Virginia-based Family Policy Network and threeunidentified UNC-Chapel Hill freshmen contended the assignment wasunconstitutional.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court rejected the motion,ruling that "the appellants have failed to satisfy therequirements for such relief."

The brief ruling contained no further explanation.

A lower-court judge in Greensboro, N.C., had rejected theplaintiffs' arguments on Thursday. Terry Moffitt, board chairmanfor the Family Policy Network, said the group had no plans toappeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Christian group said the assignment should have beenprohibited because it promoted Islam. Lawyers for UNC-Chapel Hillsaid such a ban would mean a loss of free speech rights forstudents.

Officials had said a new student could decline the assignmentbut would have to write an essay explaining why. But they have alsosaid that students who do nothing face no sanctions. In previousyears, they said, about 50 percent to 60 percent of new studentshave participated in the summer reading program.

Participation has been expressed as a requirement; but therehas never been any adverse consequence for students who do notparticipate, other than their own self-chosen loss of a learningopportunity," state attorneys said.

The state House Appropriations Committee voted earlier thismonth to ban the use of public funds for the assignment unlessother religions get equal time. Some legislators said their votewould have been no different had the book been a study of theBible.

"They should never have used the power of that university torequire a reading in one religion, mine or anybody else's," saidRep. Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat.

Of the students who brought the suit, one is evangelicalChristian, one is Roman Catholic and one is Jewish.

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