Local News

UNC Students Engage In Group Discussions About Quran

Posted August 19, 2002 5:13 a.m. EDT

— 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 discussion group on the book, titled "Approaching the Qu'ran: The Early Revelations." 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 public how it teaches religion in an impartial way.

About 4,200 incoming freshman and transfer students were assigned to read about 130 pages of "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations," by Michael Sells, a religion professor at Haverford 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 Your Choice. "

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

Attorneys for a conservative Christian group on Friday had asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to stop Monday's discussion sessions of a book that interprets the Islamic holy text. Members of the Virginia-based Family Policy Network and three unidentified UNC-Chapel Hill freshmen contended the assignment was unconstitutional.

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

The brief ruling contained no further explanation.

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

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

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

Participation has been expressed as a requirement; but there has never been any adverse consequence for students who do not participate, other than their own self-chosen loss of a learning opportunity," state attorneys said.

The state House Appropriations Committee voted earlier this month to ban the use of public funds for the assignment unless other religions get equal time. Some legislators said their vote would have been no different had the book been a study of the Bible.

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

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