BOCA RATON, Fla. — Ryan Rotella refused to step on Jesus.
The Florida Atlantic University junior’s act of reverence resulted in suspension from his college class and a barrage of attention he neither sought nor anticipated.
“The story illustrates the degree to which traditional Christian beliefs are held in contempt in the secular academy [of higher education],” said Patrick McNamara, director of communications for the New York-based Catholic League.
Rotella was in a March 4 lecture in his intercultural communication class when instructor Deandre Poole told students to each write “Jesus” on paper and then step on it. Rotella set his paper on a surface and told Poole he was offended by the request.
“Anytime you stomp on something, it shows that you believe that something has no value,” Rotella explained to Boca Raton’s CBS affiliate. “So, if you were to stomp on the word 'Jesus,' it says that the word has no value.”
Rotella complained to university administrators. They responded four days later, on March 8, by suspending him from the class. Rotella’s predicament spread through social networks and eventually found its way to the mainstream media just before Holy Week.
University officials initially defended Poole, saying that the instructor merely conducted an exercise recommended in the textbook Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach. They later apologized, but, at that time, denied having suspended Rotella.
“But we had the suspension in writing on the university’s letterhead,” said Rotella’s lawyer, Hiram Sasser, of the Texas-based Liberty Institute, which defends religious liberty.
Sasser flew to Florida March 25 to meet with his client and university officials, who finally conceded the suspension had taken place. They allowed Rotella to continue the course, under the guidance of a different instructor. They assured him that, going forward, nobody would have to step on Jesus.
“We finally got everything worked out, and they were very apologetic,” Sasser said. “But their initial reaction was to stand their ground and defend the request and the instructor who made it. Public outrage changed the trajectory this time.”
Support From Muslims
The New York-based Center on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was among an array of religion-affiliated organizations that defended Rotella, a devout Mormon.
“We love and revere Jesus,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for CAIR. “No Muslim would step on Jesus. If the professor demands it, the proper response for a Muslim is: ‘No, and I’m about to call my lawyer.’”
CAIR’s communication manager, Amina Rubin, said Rotella’s ordeal was a “shocking example of harassment and discrimination.”
“A lot of people tell Muslims that we should be more like Christians and just take it when someone does something irreverent to that which we hold sacred,” Rubin said. “Yet part of being reverent involves standing up, as this student did, when someone tries to denigrate that which is sacred.”
Florida Atlantic stresses tolerance and diversity, perhaps more than its academic peers, and claims no use of harassment and discrimination. When callers are on hold, the phone system’s narration claims the school is more diverse than any other one in Florida.
The school’s website states: “At FAU, all people are respected. The university has a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of harassment and discrimination, whether or not it is expressly covered by law.”
Poole and Florida Atlantic's president, Mary Jane Saunders, did not return multiple messages from the Register, which sought to ask whether forcing a student to step on Jesus might violate a zero-tolerance policy against harassment and discrimination.
Amy Parker, who runs the university’s diversity office, said she could not comment on the case and referred the Register to the university’s Equal Opportunity Office. An employee at that office declined to comment and deferred to the Public Relations Office, which did not return multiple calls.
Fair Treatment for Christian Students
Sasser said an order to step on Jesus clearly violates the school’s no-tolerance policy on harassment and discrimination if the school is to apply it fairly. He suggests students facing similar ordeals insist upon fair enforcement of local, state, federal and institutional anti-discrimination policies.
The good news for Christians, Sasser explained, is that courts generally enforce policies against harassment and discrimination without preference or prejudice.
“If we replace ‘Jesus’ with ‘Gandhi’ or ‘Muhammad,’ the liberals in academe should see this sort of thing as harassment and discrimination,” Sasser said. “But a lot of those who talk about diversity also criticize those who hold traditional religious beliefs sacred. It’s not really about diversity. It’s about deciding which values we are going to revere and which we are going to silence.”
Added Sasser, “Sometimes it’s about telling those with traditional beliefs to be quiet or convert to something else in order to gain acceptance.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.