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Austin Cline

Paper on God gets Failing Grade

By July 3, 2005

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In California, a student at the Victor Valley Community College received an F on her paper because she talked about God. Is this an example of religious bigotry and discrimination, or an example of someone using the specter of discrimination in order to get special treatment?

The Daily Press explains:

Hauf's teacher approved her term paper topic Religion and its Place within the Government on one condition: Don't use the word God. Instead of complying with VVCC adjunct instructor Michael Shefchik's condition Hauf wrote a 10-page report for her English 101 class entitled "In God We Trust."

Hauf acknowledges she knew her teacher's condition for writing the paper, but argued it would be impossible to write about the affect of Christianity on the development of the United States without using the word God. "He told me you might as well write about the Easter Bunny," Hauf said. "He wanted to censor the word God."

What kind of ridiculous requirement is it to prohibit someone from using the word "God" when talking about religion and government in America?

Shefchik wrote her back an e-mail approving her topic choice, but at the same time cautioning her to be objective in her reporting. "I have one limiting factor," Shefchik wrote, according to the ACLJ. "No mention of big 'G' gods, i.e., one, true god argumentation."

Ah, now we have more information: the teacher didn't want her using "one, true god argumentation." Starting out by saying "No mention of big 'G' gods" is a bizarre way of describing it, but Hauf's claim that she not permitted to "use the word God" is not an entirely accurate description of the teacher's email.

So, it sounds like Hauf chose to write about religion and it's place in government, but the condition of this topic was that she not argue that there is "one, true god" or perhaps not use the premise that there is "one, true god" as part of an argument for what role religion should have in government.

I can understand that Hauf may have preferred to be able to do this, but there's nothing inherently anti-religious, anti-God, or anti-Christian about such a requirement. It even leaves open many possible religious arguments, religious premises, and ways for her to make her case from the perspective of a believer.

"I don't loose my First Amendment rights when I walk into that college," Hauf said. She is demanding an apology from the teacher and that the paper be re-graded. ... The ACLJ said his actions are unconstitutional. "A student's constitutional free speech rights to express religious views are fully protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments," the ACLJ wrote.

What a ridiculous argument. The fact that a student has free speech rights does not mean that they can ignore constraints on a paper for a class. If we were to accept this argument, then a student could write about God when doing a chemistry paper in a science class after all, giving a failing grade would be punishing her for expressing her religious views, right?

It's not an infringement on a student's religious freedom or free speech rights to expect them to adhere to particular constraints when writing a paper. That's true even if the constraints are somehow a bad idea or fail to serve a pedagogical purpose. If the student can show that the constraints here were a bad idea, she has a legitimate complaint to make to the school, but no legitimate legal case. If she can show that the constraints were created to deliberately attack her religious beliefs, then she might have a legal case. I doubt, though, that she will manage to achieve either.

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