Freedom of Religion

Church Law and Tax 1990-09-01 Recent Developments Freedom of Religion Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M.,

Church Law and Tax 1990-09-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

To what extent can a university professor share his religious beliefs during class? That was the issue before a federal district court in Alabama. A state university professor occasionally referred to his religious beliefs during class lectures, and organized voluntary, after-class meetings to discuss the religious implications of the course material. When a few students complained of the classroom comments and after-class meetings, the university investigated the matter and issued a memorandum prohibiting the professor from injecting his religious beliefs and preferences during instructional time, and banning his after-class meetings. When the professor’s attempts to have the university rescind the memorandum proved unsuccessful, he filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the school was interfering with his constitutional right to freely exercise his religion. The court agreed with the professor. The court began its opinion by emphasizing that “university professors are entitled to freedom of speech in their jobs,” and that the “classroom is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas.” It observed that the university did not prohibit faculty members from engaging in non-religious classroom speech involving personal views, and did not prohibit faculty members from organizing after-class meetings for discussing ideas from a non-religious perspective. Accordingly, the university has “created a forum for students and their professors to engage in a free interchange of ideas” and “it may not exclude unfavored religious speech unless the exclusion is necessary to further a compelling governmental interest ….” The university countered that its policy was necessary in order to avoid “establishing a religion.” The court summarily rejected this defense, concluding that “the university has no interest sufficient to justify restricting a professor’s freedom to make occasional classroom comments about personal religious beliefs or to restrict him from holding after-class meetings with students on state university property to discuss a Christian perspective on academic topics.” Bishop v. Aronov, 732 F. Supp. 1562 (N.D. Ala. 1990).

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