University of California system sued over creationism

Creationism is prominent in a recent lawsuit that charges the University of California system with violating the constitutional rights of applicants from Christian schools whose high school coursework is deemed inadequate preparation for college. The complaint was filed in federal court in Los Angeles on August 25, 2005, on behalf of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), the Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, California, and a handful of students at the school. Representing the plaintiffs are Robert H. Tyler, a lawyer with a new organization called Advocates for Faith and Freedom, and Wendell R. Bird of the Atlanta law firm Bird and Loechl.


Bird is no stranger to litigation over creationism. As a law student in the late 1970s, he published a student note in the Yale Law Journal sketching a strategy for using the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to secure a place for creationism in the public school science classroom. Bird later worked at the Institute for Creation Research, where he updated its model "equal-time" resolution. The ICR's resolution eventually mutated, in Paul Ellwanger's hands, to become model "equal-time" legislation. A bill based on Ellwanger's model was passed in Arkansas in 1981 and then ruled unconstitutional in McLean v. Arkansas.

Although Bird was not able to participate in the McLean trial -- he sought to intervene on behalf of a number of creationist organizations and individuals, but was not allowed to do so -- he was involved in Aguillard v. Treen, which became Edwards v. Aguillard. Named a special assistant attorney general in Louisiana, Bird defended Louisiana's "equal-time" act all the way to the Supreme Court, where in 1987 it was ruled to violate the Establishment Clause. His The Origin of Species Revisited, which compared evolution and "abrupt appearance," was subsequently published (in two volumes).

At issue in the present suit are the guidelines set by the University of California system to ensure that first-year students have been adequately prepared for college in their high schools. The complaint (1.6M PDF) cites a policy of rejecting high school biology courses that use textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books as "inconsistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community." Such a policy, the complaint alleges, infringes on the plaintiffs' rights to "freedom of speech, freedom from viewpoint discrimination, freedom of religion and association, freedom from arbitrary discretion, equal protection of the laws, and freedom from hostility toward religion."

Robert Tyler told the Los Angeles Times (August 27, 2005) that "It appears that the UC system is attempting to secularize Christian schools and prevent them from teaching from a [Christian world] view." But creationism is a matter of theology, not of science, Robert John Russell of the Center for Theology and Natural Science told the Oakland Tribune [Link broken] (August 31, 2005). "It's almost ludicrous anyone would even take this seriously," Russell said. "It seems absurd that a student who had poor biology would meet the same standards as a student with 'good' biology. ...This has nothing to do with First Amendment rights."

A spokesperson for the University of California system would not comment on the specific allegations leveled in the complaint, but told the Los Angeles Times that the university was entitled to set course requirements for incoming students, adding, "[t]hese requirements were established after careful study by faculty and staff to ensure that students who come here are fully prepared with broad knowledge and the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed."

In its fall 2005 newsletter, ACSI expresses concern that the University of California system's "secular intolerance might spread to other institutions and to other states. ... If this discrimination is allowed to continue unchallenged, it is only a matter of time before secular institutions in other states will join the bandwagon." Interviewed by Education Week (September 7, 2005), however, a spokesperson for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers expressed the opposite concern, reportedly worrying "about the potential implications of asking a university to ignore its course requirements -- which had been shaped by experts in various fields -- in favor of a 'free-for-all,' in which any interest group is allowed to shape policy."