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Professor accused of ‘unconstitutional hostility toward Christianity’ now teaching ‘Intro to Religious Studies’

A professor recently accused by conservative attorneys and a former student of “unconstitutional hostility toward Christianity” remains a professor at Polk State College this fall, as university officials rebuffed the claim as “baseless” and “without merit.”

Professor Lance Russum is teaching “Introduction to Religious Studies” this semester at the public institution, as well as “Introduction to Humanities” – the class at the center of the controversy – “Philosophy: Ethics,” and “Women in Humanities,” a school spokeswoman confirmed to The College Fix.

Professor Russum was the target of a complaint letter sent to the school in May by the conservative public interest law firm Liberty Counsel on behalf of a dual-enrolled honors high school student G.L., who expressed concern and outrage over the syllabus and grading style of Russum in his teaching of the humanities course.

The student received zeros on assignments for expressing her Christian beliefs, the attorneys claimed. They stated she refused to concede that: Christianity was false, violent, or oppressive to women; that Martin Luther’s motivations for the Reformation were wholly secular; and that Michelangelo’s work supported homosexuality.

“Mr. Russum should be fired, as he has forfeited all trust in his academic integrity,” the complaint letter stated.

In responding to this allegation as well as claims of religious discrimination, Polk State College attorneys answered back that “the college affirmatively asserts that your allegation of discrimination is baseless, without merit, and absolutely lacking any factual support,” according to a copy of the response obtained by The College Fix.

Polk State stated Russum’s assignments were simply academic exercises.

“The overall fallacy of your position rests singly on the premise that an instructor should not require a student to consider, discuss or present arguments that are contrary to his/her personal beliefs,” the college stated. “Such a position shows apparent ignorance of longstanding academic practice. … It is common practice for students to be asked to research a particular proposition and to be prepared to argue either ‘for’ or ‘against’ that proposition as the instruction might direct.” FacebookscreengrabRussum

(Image at right was taken from Russum’s personal Facebook page and cited as an example of his “unadulterated hostility toward Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause,” by Liberty Counsel. Polk State responded that “Professor Russum’s Facebook posts are not evidence of discrimination, but merely examples of how Professor Russum chooses to express himself outside the classroom. The U.S. Constitution protects personal expression even when that expression offends other people.”) 

As for claims of religious discrimination, in its response to Liberty Counsel, the college’s attorneys cited “the student’s failure to recognize the assignment as an academic exercise.” This despite the nature of assigned essay questions, including, for example, “Why did Christianity, and its male gods, seek to silence these women [nuns]?”

The college also included in its rebuttal a lengthy email exchange between the professor and the student in which he told the student she ignored his instructions and went off on tangents on the essays in which he assigned.

Russum told Inside Higher Ed he’s received hate mail because of the complaint, “some of it homophobic and anti-Semitic, and even a physical threat from those outside the college.”

“I want my students to have their own thought processes challenged, not give up their beliefs or some of the other things that I’ve been accused of,” he told the publication, adding that of all the names he was called, “the only one I’m going to own is feminist. I don’t identify as an atheist, but I am going to own that one and that’s why I do include questions about things such as nuns in the Middle Ages.”

Among the evidence the student’s attorneys had presented to affirm their case were lengthy portions of Russum’s syllabus:

Beginning in Week 1 of the course assignments, Mr. Russum makes a claim of secular humanist orthodoxy: “What we take to be the ‘truth’ is just the retelling of the myths of early civilization. The god [sic] of Christianity/Islam/Judaism are [sic] a mixture of the god(s) myths of the Mesopotamians.” He continues: “The point of this is not to ‘bash’ any religion, we should NEVER favor one over another, they all come from the same source, HUMAN IMAGINATION . . . ”. In other words, all religions are equally “false” and must be treated accordingly. Also in Week 1, Mr. Russum introduces students to “Karl Marx” as an authority on the “the cultural attempt to build civilization” of the ancient Mesopotamians.

In Week 2, Mr. Russum introduces students to “the Epic,” including “elements of homoerotic/Friendship/Raw human sexuality” and “the use of sexuality and the role of women” in the epic.

Weeks 3 and 4 discuss the Egyptians, and Mr. Russum’s attempt to deconstruct the Bible by claiming the discredited position that the Egyptian Book of the Dead is the source material for the Biblical First Book of Samuel. …

With Week 11, however, Mr. Russum returns to his theme of Christianity as the source of all evil in “The Roll [sic] of Religion in the Middle Ages.” Throughout Week 11, and the course content, Mr. Russum repetitively refers to Christianity with pejoratives such as the “Christian mythos;” or the “mythology of the trinity [sic], god [sic], Christology and Mariology;” “the mythos that seeks to punish unbelief;” “one of the most violent forms of religion the world has ever seen;” and so on. …

Week 11:

“There is no denying that Christianity in the Middle Ages was harsh and at times inhumane, e.g., the Crusades. Christianity proved itself during the Middle Ages to be one of the most violent forms of religion the world had ever seen.”

“Women found space to become mystics, bear the wounds of their gods, become Nuns [sic].”

The nuns are an “example to all the major religions today, that STILL attempt to regulate the bodies of women . . . .”

“Enjoy the reading on the Nuns [sic] who continued to do what they thought was best for humanity when god’s [sic] representatives said it was not.”

“NOTE: . . . and this is VERY important, I DO NOT want you to write about how wonderful you think Christianity is now because women can do A, B, or C. History is history and facts are facts and your opinion on if it is better now or not is irrelevant for this discussion. This is a HISTORICAL discussion about the middle ages. …

Week 13

“Luther is a product of his historical moment and must be understood in his time. Describe how his reformation is a political act [sic] one that expands humanism and draws us aways [sic] from the mythos that seeks to punish unbelief. Luther free [sic] us through his humanism and we can never forget the power of his reformation.” “Any quotes from his sermons or writings MUST be about humanism and how the reformation is in the right place and right time in history NOT some divine providence of the gods.” “the history of the humanism of Luther and his reformation.” “IF You turn this into a theological debate or [sic] divine providence I will NOT read it and you will be given a zero.”

As Liberty Counsel had asserted, G.L. “was required to agree with the professor on matters contrary to her faith just to answer his questions.”

But Polk State further justified the “fairness” of Professor Russum’s treatment of G.L as well as asserting the lack of grounds for discrimination due to her overall “A” in the class.

The “A” grade was awarded after the demand letter had been filed by Liberty Counsel, who states “we have no reason to believe she would have received an appropriate grade based on the four straight zero grades and the professor’s and the dean’s prior communications.”

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said in an email to The College Fix that “a public college professor cannot openly discriminate against a student throughout a course and then award a good grade at the end to avoid accountability for the violations.”

Professor Russum did not respond to requests from The College Fix seeking comment.

As for the introduction to religious studies course Russum is teaching this semester, its description states the “course provides a study of the fundamental principles of religion as an academic discipline.”

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