CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A requirement that all incoming students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill read a book containing passages from the Koran has generated controversy, praise and criticism.

Now, it has also generated a lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are three unnamed University of North Carolina students — one Catholic, one evangelical Christian and one Jew — and two leaders of the Family Policy Network, a conservative Christian advocacy group. The lawsuit, filed July 22 in federal district court in Greensboro, alleges that the university is infringing upon the religious free exercise of its students and violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment, forcing students to study Islam against their will.

“We had hoped the university would see the error of its ways and correct this wrong without going to court,” said Family Policy Network President Joe Glover, who hand-delivered the summons for Chancellor James Moeser and Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Learning Cynthia Wolf Johnson. Both are named as defendants.

Family Policy Network Board Chairman Terry Moffitt, a University of North Carolina alumnus; and the group's state director, James Yacovelli, are the two named plaintiffs.

The book, Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, translated and introduced by Michael Sells, contains 35 suras, or short passages, from the holy book of Islam. All incoming freshmen and transfer students are required to read the book, write a 300-word response and participate in a small-group discussion session the first week of classes.

During the week of July 15, University of North Carolina amended the policy on its Web site. It said that students do not have to read the book if they find it offensive, but they must still complete a paper describing their objections. They also must attend the discussion sessions.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the reading program and nominal damages for university actions.

A university spokesman declined comment on the lawsuit, citing pending litigation.

Catholic Response

Reaction from Catholic groups has been largely muted.

“Unless there's any element of proselytizing or promoting the Muslim religion, I think it's a wonderful program,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. “[The university] is recognizing that a particular religion is having a profound effect on world politics today.”

In fact, Reilly foresees an advantage: “If they're acknowledging that Islam as a religion has an important effect on society, then it shows me they're closer to realizing the importance of faith in the world. They may be closer than ever to discussing Christianity and its influences.”

But requiring students to read just one religious text and not the Bible or the Torah is what has sparked the outcry. Glover said he would react just as vehemently if University of North Carolina required that students read portions of the Bible with no balance from other religious texts.

“I don't trust a state university to properly present Christianity, Judaism or Islam,” he said.

Michael Chepul, Catholic campus ministry assistant at University of North Carolina, said he doesn't take offense at the fact that the school did not choose passages from the Bible.

“Most people already have knowledge about the Bible, but not necessarily about the Koran,” he said. “There's a big misconception about the Muslim faith.” Chepul has spoken with campus ministers of other faiths, and he said he senses an agreement among them that the book is a good selection. Seven ministers of various faiths will be among those leading the discussion sessions.

Catholic League President William Donohue spoke out against the Family Policy Network lawsuit, saying the university is within its rights to require the reading.

“There is a fundamental difference between indoctrination and education,” Donohue said in a July 23 Catholic League press release. “It is the difference between proselytization and illumination.”

Legal Issues

The discussion sessions are what could pose constitutional problems, said Seth Jaffe, staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

When school convenes in August, all incoming students will attend a two-hour small-group session where they will turn in their written responses and discuss the book. Their essays are responses to suggested prompts. Among these prompts are: Read a sura while listening to the Koranic recitation and describe what the experience adds to the understanding of the text; or explain how a certain sura treats the relationship between the external world of nature and the internal world of faith and moral obligation.

Jaffe said the ACLU will keep a close eye on the discussions. It would violate the establishment clause, he said, if the book is taught in a way that proselytizes or encourages students to adhere to the teachings of Islam.

But he cautioned that for now, there is no violation of civil rights. “To require students to read about a religion is not the same as endorsing or promoting that religion,” he said.

“The stated purpose is not a religious purpose,” he said. “Our general position is that this is a concern, but it doesn't appear to be problematic according to the stated purpose.”

The stated purpose of the book selection is to provide a common experience for incoming students and to promote cultural understanding. It is also a nod to the sudden prominence of Islam since the events of Sept. 11.

Thoughts on Campus

Marissa Heyl, a freshman from Raleigh, read the book early. “I think it's important for people of all faiths to grow in understanding of other religions,” said the graduate of 13 years of Catholic schools.

Her mother, Pam Heyl, teaches a law class at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh and sees no legal grounds for critiquing the requirement. Instead, she views it as an opportunity to debunk myths about Islam.

“It's good for students to get a perspective on what other religions teach, especially a religion that's associated with terrorism,” she said.

Her daughter noted another benefit: “It will only help me enhance my relationship with God and with others.”

Glover acknowledged that many students have no objection to reading the book.

“Those people don't know what this requirement is really all about,” he said. “It's a very one-sided presentation on Islam that leaves the most egregious parts out.”

Egregious parts, Glover said, include passages like suras 434 and 95, which deal with Islam's treatment of women and pagans. By not requiring students to read passages like these, he said the university is giving them a skewed view of Islam.

But Carl Ernst, a religion professor at University of North Carolina who has taught the book twice in freshmen seminars, stressed that the reading is not presented as a theological or authoritative text.

“We do not teach religion as religious communities do,” he said. “We teach about religion. We do not advocate particular religious texts or theologies.”

The program was instituted in 1999 as part of an effort to improve the university's intellectual climate.

Dana Wind writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.