A friend of mine, more radical and pessimistic than I, claims that it is illegal to be a Christian in the United States today. Though I find that assessment overstated, not to say hysterical, it can hardly be doubted that public expressions of Christianity have, in the last several decades, been sharply curtailed. The public square, as someone has said, is being progressively denuded of religious references.
The secularization of public space is much more than a matter of crèches in the town square, an issue about which I am blissfully indifferent. Of far more consequence are, for example, the arrests of pro-lifers for praying or preaching on the streets in front of abortion clinics. Since Christianity necessarily expresses itself in public (faith without works is dead, James tells us, and Paul teaches that we are saved by faith in the heart and confession with the lips), legal limitations on these fundamental public expressions of Christianity constitute an attack on Christianity itself. Many cases of this kind have, happily, been resolved in favor of religious liberty. Still, it is chilling to realize how many Americans hold the view that a person may be a Christian so long as he keeps his faith well hidden from public view.
Hostility to public expression of religious faith manifests itself even in the arena that purports to be the most open of all public forums—namely, the university classroom. A recent case at the University of Alabama is a good illustration. On March 15, 1991, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta decided that the administration of the University did not violate the First Amendment when it prevented Dr. Phillip A. Bishop, a Christian who teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in exercise physiology, from making religious statements during class and from offering optional classes that offer a Christian perspective on his discipline.
The facts of the case are not in dispute. Both sides agree that Bishop did not engage in proselytizing, prayer, reading from the Bible, or distributing religious tracts. Instead, he was cited because he—gasp!—“occasionally referred to his religious beliefs during instructional time.” According to his testimony, he did this under different conditions and for various reasons.
At times, he said, he would refer to his religious convictions in order to establish a more personal relationship with his students—much as other professors spoke about sports or travel to establish rapport with their students—so that they would, in his words, “see me not as a pedagogue up front lecturing but as a real person.”
In addition, during discussions about what might be called the academic culture (promotions, tenure, research, etc.), he would emphasize his belief that people are granted eternal life and are thus “more important and valuable than a stack of technical papers.” He also offered his religious comments in order to alert students to his religious “bias.” Bishop recalled that his comments ran along these lines: “You need to recognize as my students that this is my bias and that it colors everything I say and do. If that is not your bias, that is fine. You need, however, to filter everything I say through that Christian bias filter.”
Occasionally Bishop would make remarks that revealed more directly how his religious beliefs were related to the subject matter he was teaching. “Once or twice per month” he would note in class that he thinks “the scientific evidence points to ‘a design and a designer.’” And he had offered an optional class entitled “Evidence of God in Human Physiology,” but he made sure that attendance at the optional class would have no bearing on any student grade by blind-grading his exams.
During the spring semester of the 1986-87 academic year, a student complained to Bishop’s supervisor, Carl Westerfield, about Bishop’s religious statements and about the optional class. In September of 1987, Westerfield sent Bishop a memo insisting on the administration’s support for Bishop’s academic and religious freedom but instructing him to discontinue “the interjection of religious beliefs and/or preferences during instructional time periods” and “the optional classes where a ‘Christian perspective’ of an academic topic is delivered.” Bishop complied with Westerfield’s directive but made an unsuccessful effort to get the order rescinded. Then in the fall of 1988, under the sponsorship of the Southern Center for Law and Ethics, he filed suit against the governing board of the University.
On February 26, 1990, a U.S. District court granted a summary judgment in his favor. The Court found that the University “has no interest sufficient to justify restricting a professor’s freedom to make occasional classroom comments about personal religious beliefs.” On the specific question of the optional class, the Court determined that “a meeting between Bishop and students to discuss subjects of mutual interest is consistent with the University’s educational purpose.”
In overturning this decision in March, the Eleventh Circuit Court admitted that “the religion clauses are implicated because of the indisputably religious character of Dr. Bishop’s remarks,” but determined that the more relevant precedents have to do with “cases that discuss the free speech rights of public teachers.” These cases indicate that school administrators have “some authority over the conduct of teachers in and out of the classroom that significantly bears on the curriculum or that gives the appearance of endorsement by the university.” In the Court’s opinion, therefore, the University’s memo did not constitute an infringement on Dr. Bishop’s free exercise of religion, but only denied him the right to “discuss his religious beliefs or opinions under the guise of University courses.” Nor, in the Court’s opinion, was the University guilty of establishing an anti-Christian religion, but “has simply attempted to maintain a neutral, secular classroom.” In sum, the University is fully within its rights to “control the content of curriculum in the classroom, regardless of the Establishment Clause. The University necessarily has dominion over what is taught by its professors and may so manage them.”
In a petition for rehearing before the Circuit Court, Bishop’s attorney, Albert L. Jordan, challenged the Court’s “balance of interests,” namely, “that restrictions on professor classroom speech are valid if reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical goals.” Rather, he argued, “the standard is whether the speech is so disruptive as to overbalance the usefulness of an instructor.” Measured by this standard, even on the Circuit Court’s reading of the evidence, Bishop’s religious statements are entirely legitimate. The Circuit Court panel, Jordan continued, “too quickly assumes that every classroom statement by a college professor reflects the sponsorship of the school, rather than the toleration of diverse ideas. To this extent, the panel gives academic freedom in the classroom none of its traditional value.” On May 17, the Circuit Court denied a petition for rehearing, and Bishop’s attorneys are presently preparing an appeal to the Supreme Court.
I leave the legal niceties of the case to the lawyers and questions of academic freedom to the academics. To the believer, two aspects of the Court’s decision stand out. First, it is patently absurd for the Court to conclude that the religious character of Bishop’s statements is not the controlling issue in the case. Obviously, if Bishop had confined his personal remarks to sports or current events, there would have been no complaints from students, no Westerfield memo, no lawsuit. The Courts have long protected all kinds of non-disruptive speech in university classrooms, and the University of Alabama itself has no policy of restricting non-religious classroom speech. In the light of these facts, it becomes clear that the Circuit Court’s decision amounts to a defense of religious intolerance. In a time when “political correctness” is a growing concern at our universities, intolerance of minority religious views is not surprising. What is surprising is that a Court should defend an imposition of “political correctness.”
Equally alarming is the Court’s narrowing of the legitimate expressions of religious faith: “The University has not suggested that Dr. Bishop cannot hold his particular views; express them, on his own time, far and wide and to whomever will listen; or write and publish, no doubt authoritatively, on them; nor could it so prohibit him. The University has simply said that he may not discuss his religious beliefs or opinions under the guise of University courses.”
In other words, Dr. Bishop may express his religious beliefs in every available forum except when he is engaged in his life’s work, in what he undoubtedly considers his vocation of teaching. In making these distinctions, the Court is in effect limiting the range of licit expressions of religious faith, legally defining what forms Christian faith may and may not take. Restrictions on the expression of religious faith are obviously necessary—human sacrifice, however sincere the beliefs of the sacrificers, is not constitutionally protected. But the Court’s restrictions are exceedingly confining. From the Court’s viewpoint, a professor can be a believer “on his own time,” but certainly not on the job; he can “hold” his religious beliefs, but he cannot “interject” them into his courses. It is doubtful that any academic can avoid interjecting some kind of religious belief into his course material. (Would the Court, for that matter, see fit to restrict a believing Marxist in this way?)
For a Christian like Dr. Bishop, for whom religious faith colors everything he says and does, such avoidance is virtually impossible. Many Christian academics strive to approach their specialties from the standpoint of a Christian worldview. The Circuit Court’s decision carries the distinct implication that religiously grounded views on an academic discipline are excluded from the college classroom, precisely because they are religiously grounded.
All of which suggests that my pessimistic friend might be on to something after all.
Peter J. Leithart is Pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alabaster, Alabama.