Florida Atlantic University is in crisis after a student was instructed to write the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper and stomp on it. One Mormon student refused to participate in the classroom activity, citing his Christian faith, and now he is rallying opposition nationwide. On Monday’s "The O’Reilly Factor," Bill O’Reilly told Mary Katherine Ham and me he sees this case as part of an ongoing hostility to Christianity and conservatives on college campuses.
Bill asked me if I would defend the classroom exercise if the students had to stomp on the name “Mohammed.” My answer is yes, absolutely. To my mind, there is no other intellectually honest answer for any American who believes in First Amendment rights.
The intent of the FAU classroom exercise is to promote critical thinking and draw attention to the sensitivity surrounding symbols in religion and politics. The best colleges encourage their students to question authority and challenge institutions – be it government, in business or in matters of religious faith. That is the best way to teach young people to avoid politically correct thinking.
It is worth noting that the instructor got the idea for this class exercise from a textbook on intercultural communication. According to book, the exercise is intended to show students the power of symbols. But the student took the class activity as an assault on his religious beliefs. As a fellow Christian who believes that Jesus Christ is my lord and savior, I strongly disagree with the young man.
In this Easter season, it is important to recall that a mob called on the government to crucify Jesus, and they did it. That was far worse than stepping on a piece of paper with his name on it. Yet the power of Christ crucified, his death and resurrection, has inspired people and saved lives across the centuries.
Stepping on a piece of paper, burning a flag or an effigy amount to symbolic acts. And the Supreme Court has ruled that even in the case of the flag, our national symbol, there is Constitutional protection.
When some Muslims rioted because a minister threatened to burn the Koran in anger at Islam, I saw it as an over-reaction to one provocative act. I have the same thought about the situation at FAU.
The university is embarrassed by the episode and has now issued an apology. It is posted on the front page of their main website: “This exercise will not be used again," they said in their statement. "The University holds dear its core values. We sincerely apologize for any offense this caused. Florida Atlantic University respects all religions and welcomes people of all faiths, backgrounds and beliefs."
"The course is taught by a non-tenured instructor on an annual appointment," according to the statement. "Contrary to some media reports, no students were forced to take part in the exercise; the instructor told all of the students in the class that they could choose whether or not to participate."
Moreover, the university denies that the student was suspended because of this episode:
In a statement to Fox News, they said: “While we do not comment on personnel matters, and while student privacy laws prevent us from commenting on any specific student at the University, we can confirm that no student has been expelled, suspended or disciplined by the University as a result of any activity that took place during this class.”
As Mary Katharine Ham, my debating partner on "The O'Reilly Factor," correctly noted during the segment, Americans have a right to say they don’t like stepping on Jesus’ name. But stopping the academic exercise is wrong.
The reaction against FAU and the teacher strikes me as an attempt to shut down free speech and silence educators who use provocative teaching methods.
Look on the Internet and you will see people calling for the teacher to be fired.
That disturbs me. What these critics want is to suppress free speech. That’s not Christian. That’s not American.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.