Lawsuit tests religious speech in class

By July 12, 2004

In a lawsuit that’s shining a spotlight on the role of religion in higher education, an Ohio community college philosophy professor says administrators punished him because he made a point of disclosing his Catholic beliefs in the classroom.

While the college hasn’t presented its side of the story yet, it appears that the case will pit the professor’s freedom of speech against the school’s right to control its staff. There’s a larger question too, one that will be debated outside the court system: Even if it’s legal, should educators ever tell students about their faith?

One national organization has already jumped into the fray. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a five-year-old legal advocacy group, is assisting James Tuttle, who filed suit on June 30 against Lakeland Community College of Kirtland, a Cleveland suburb.

“Apparently, at Lakeland College, Thomas Aquinas wouldn’t be able to teach philosophy,” says David French, president of the Philadelphia-based FIRE.

In the lawsuit, Dr. Tuttle says he got into hot water with the college’s administration in 2003 after a student complained about his discussions of his Catholic beliefs. Among other things, the student mentioned a note in the class syllabus that Tuttle describes as a “disclaimer.”

In the note, Tuttle describes himself as a “catholic Christian philosopher and theologian” who is “passionate, controversial (not politically correct), candid and zany/earthy.” He urges students to “be aware of where I am coming from” and says his critics often “have personal issues with faith, religion, morals and ideology.”

He finishes the disclaimer by urging students who are “uncomfortable” to talk to him and try to resolve any problems.

According to the lawsuit, Tuttle’s supervisor wrote the professor a letter saying the disclaimer bothered him more than the student’s complaint. The supervisor allegedly suggested that the part-time professor, who did not have tenure, “would be happier in a sectarian classroom.”

Tuttle claims he received only one class assignment last fall, even though he’d received high rankings from students in surveys. When the college later refused to assign him to his requested classes, he refused to teach at the school.

“They directly responded to his viewpoint by essentially demoting, railroading, and terminating him,” says Jeffrey Brauer, Tuttle’s attorney.

Lakeland Community College’s attorney, Bradley Sherman, says the administration did nothing wrong and has a “different view of the facts” than the professor. Mr. Sherman declined further comment.

Tuttle, who drives a limousine for a living, continues to teach part time at another community college, his attorney says.

The case is unusual because “most universities take a hands-off attitude toward their professors,” says Eugene Volokh, professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles. But the motives behind the school’s actions aren’t uncommon, says FIRE’s Mr. French. Many administrators wrongly believe that “a public institution must be cleansed of all religions influence to comply with the Constitution,” he says. In reality, “they can’t favor religious expression, but they can’t disfavor it either. They can’t single it out for bad treatment.”

FIRE, which is nonpartisan, defends students and teachers who claim their civil rights are being violated on campus. Among other actions, the group has gone to bat for religious clubs and student editorial cartoonists who offended ethnic groups. “Those who tend to be censored often tend to be on the right,” French says.

Universities can’t violate the right of professors to mention religion where it may be appropriate, as in a philosophy class, says Volokh. “It’s understood that students are not impressionable youngsters. They’re adults, they’re engaged in a consultation with a professor.” On the other hand, “imagine if the professor says, ‘I believe in this, and if you don’t say this prayer with me, I will flunk you.’ That would be clearly unconstitutional coercion of religious practice,” Volokh says. “And you could imagine if the professor spends the entire class preaching his religion, then there might be a violation.”

Regardless of the legalities, some professors think the less they say about their own beliefs in class, the better. “As an educator, I worry about starting off a course with a distinct profession of any point of view,” says Carney Strange, professor of higher education at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. “It may potentially create a chilling effect on how students examine various points of view. There’s a power and position differential between faculty and students.”

David Oxtoby, a chemist and president of Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., isn’t so strict. While he doesn’t think discussion of his Lutheran beliefs should play a role in chemistry classes, he does bring them up in seminars about the interaction between science and religion. “It’s important to make your own belief system explicit, then ask students about their thoughts on these types of issues and get a good discussion going.”

Both Dr. Strange and Mr. Oxtoby agree on one thing: Proselytizing has no place in the classroom. “The professor needs to be in a role of drawing students out rather than telling them what they ought to believe,” Oxtoby says. “That’s the crucial difference.

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Schools: Lakeland Community College