Appeals Court Refuses to Halt Quran Course

A federal appeals court refused Monday to halt a program to expose new students at the University of North Carolina to information about the Quran.

Attorneys for a conservative Christian group on Friday had asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to stop Monday's discussion sessions of a book that interprets the Islamic holy text. Members of the Virginia-based Family Policy Network and three unidentified UNC-Chapel Hill freshmen contended the assignment was unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court rejected the motion, ruling that "the appellants have failed to satisfy the requirements for such relief."

The brief ruling contained no further explanation.

A lower-court judge in Greensboro, N.C., had rejected the plaintiffs' arguments on Thursday. Terry Moffitt, board chairman for the Family Policy Network, said the group had no plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

About 4,200 incoming freshman and transfer students were assigned to read about 130 pages of "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations," by Michael Sells, a religion professor at Haverford College.

The Christian group said the assignment should have been prohibited because it promoted Islam. Lawyers for UNC-Chapel Hill said such a ban would mean a loss of free speech rights for students.

A university committee selected the book after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to introduce students to unfamiliar ideas shared by about 1 billion Muslims around the world, state attorneys said in a court brief filed Saturday.

The reading and the two-hour group discussions Monday afternoon were also designed to initiate students into the university's intellectual life, state attorneys said.

Officials had said a new student could decline the assignment but would have to write an essay explaining why. But they have also said that students who do nothing face no sanctions. In previous years, they said, about 50 percent to 60 percent of new students have participated in the summer reading program.

"Participation has been expressed as a requirement; but there has never been any adverse consequence for students who do not participate, other than their own self-chosen loss of a learning opportunity," state attorneys said.

The ruling issued Monday was written by Judge Robert B. King, who was joined in the unanimous decision by Judges Roger L. Gregory and William B. Traxler Jr.

The state House Appropriations Committee voted earlier this month to ban the use of public funds for the assignment unless other religions get equal time. Some legislators said their vote would have been no different had the book been a study of the Bible.

"They should never have used the power of that university to require a reading in one religion, mine or anybody else's," said Rep. Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat.

Of the students who brought the suit, one is evangelical Christian, one is Roman Catholic and one is Jewish.