Lecture examines religion’s role at public universities

Chelsie Hanstad

The MacLaurin Institute held a public lecture Tuesday at Mondale Hall to discuss the role of religion in a public university.

Michael Stokes Paulsen, lawyer and University law professor, said the exclusion of religious inquiry in public universities violates the First Amendment and degrades the educational process.

To not discuss religion, Paulson said, would be to ignore some of the basic questions in many areas of study, including mathematics, science and sociology.

“A university that does not include these things is intellectually deformed,” he said. “A university should embrace controversy.”

There are three arguments public universities commonly use against allowing religious inquiry into the classroom, Paulsen said.

First, universities argue they do not have the time or space for debating religious topics, Paulsen said.

“That may be acceptable at a high school (or) even at a community college,” Paulsen said. “But at a university, there’s no excuse not to go deeper.”

Second, he said many universities feel religion is not a legitimate part of their educational mission – a claim he thinks is not valid.

“Universities ought to be all about divisiveness, debate and argument,” Paulsen said.

Third, universities often claim it is unconstitutional to include religion.

Paulsen said the opposite is true.

To keep debate and inquiry about religion out of the classroom would be a violation of the First Amendment, Paulsen said. The First Amendment does not forbid religious discussion – it only forbids the government favoring one religion over another, he said.

“You cannot discriminate against views simply because they are religious views,” he said.

Both students’ and professors’ religious views should be allowed in the classroom if the topic is pertinent, Paulsen said. As long as the discussion of religion is relevant to the topic and students do not feel coerced into accepting the professor’s religious views, religious discussion should be allowed, he said. If a religious discussion fits within the subject matter of a class, it should be accepted, he said.

“If professors are allowed to share a feminist viewpoint, they should be able to share a fundamentalist viewpoint,” Paulsen said. “When it’s off topic or too much opinionated stuff, it is bad teaching.”

Christopher Weiss of the University Atheists and Humanists said he believes discussion about religion at a public university is fine.

“I’m always for public discourse and discussion on the issues. If people want to study the history or philosophy of religion, that’s fine,” Weiss said. “If everyone had to pray every day before class, I’d have a problem with it.”