The University of Maryland is coming under fire for handing out a book that critics say forces pro-homosexual propaganda on its students.

The controversy involves the college's decision to buy 10,000 copies of The Laramie Project, and hand them out to freshmen living on campus. The play looks at how the community of Laramie, Wyo., reacted to the case of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager who was beaten by two young men, tied to a fencepost and left for dead.

Shepard died in the hospital a few days after being found.

Though all incoming freshmen at the College Park campus will be given a copy, only some introductory courses will actually require it. And critics don't think that's appropriate.

"The intent seems to be to use this book to promote the acceptance of homosexuality and to recast traditional values as a form of bigotry and hatred," said Robert Knight, the director of the Culture and Family Institute.

The university defended its choice of Laramie. "What it is, is a documentary of conversations with people who lived in Laramie, Wyoming, and how the event there … affected them," said university spokesman George Cathcart. "It actually does not push any sort of lifestyle."

Some critics say it does. Among them is the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, which fought a University of North Carolina decision to assign all incoming students a reading assignment on the Quran.

"I don't think that the overall issue at the University of North Carolina was the Quran or Islam, and I don't think the major issue at the University of Maryland is homosexuality," said Joe Glover, Family Policy Network's president. "I think the issue is heavy-handed liberal bias masquerading as open discussion and free inquiry."

"The big lie on both of these campuses is that somehow they're opening students' minds to think," Glover continued. "What they're doing is shoving one point of view down students' throats, in both cases, and pretending somehow that they're unafraid to hear every side of the issue."

Other critics noted Laramie seems to cast all those who don't endorse gay rights or accept that lifestyle as the enemy.

"You find these techniques of citing diversity to trash traditional values used all over the country, even rural universities, and if you object, you're considered intolerant," Knight said.

University officials are standing by their decision, particularly given the events of Sept. 11 and the recent deaths of several students in a series of unrelated incidents.

"There's a lot of healing that needs to go on on this campus," Cathcart said, adding that if the book makes some people uncomfortable, "that's part of education."

Laramie playwright Moises Kaufman has scheduled a visit to the campus, and the school will hold a screening of the HBO special on Oct. 10.

No group to date has yet slapped UM with a lawsuit. But Glover said that if the university restricts students from expressing religious beliefs regarding this issue, "we're going to challenge them in court."

Taxpayers of the state school also should speak up, Knight argued. Marylanders "should encourage their university to strive for fairness and balance, not promotion of the latest liberal fashion."

But sophomore Jonathan Woody, a voice performance major who has read the book, said he doesn't buy the argument the play forces one viewpoint on the reader.

"I think that if a student chooses to come to a university, they should be willing to have an open mind … on education on all topics," Woody said. "You should be able to handle discussions on topics you're not used to coming across."