This week, Polk State College responded to the case involving a professor who is proselytizing militant atheism at Polk State. When 16 year-old Grace Lewis was the subject of religious intolerance by humanities professor Lance “L.J.” Russum, Liberty Counsel asked Polk State College Dean Donald Painter, who is also on the board of St. Pete Pride, to investigate the professor and his curriculum.
In its response, Polk State General Counsel concluded that no evidence of any discrimination exists because Grace received an overall grade of “A” for this class. Grace clearly earned the grade. However, the “A” was awarded only after Liberty Counsel’s demand letter, and 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. “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,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel.
“This professor is a militant atheist intent on destroying his students’ faith,” Staver said. “Professor Russum hasn’t just targeted Grace. Another student said the professor required the students to keep a journal, which he would read. When she wrote in her journal that she believed in God, the professor took her aside and said, ‘You need to drop my class.’” Staver continued. “Professor Russum is proselytizing militant atheism, and Polk State College needs to hold him accountable.”
Despite its assertion otherwise, ample evidence of discrimination exists. First, the professor was openly hostile towards Christianity in general, and Grace’s Christian viewpoint in particular, which violates the Establishment Clause. Second, Grace was penalized with reduced points, and then four zeros, for not conforming to the professor’s worldview, which violates both the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses. Grace was not merely asked to consider, discuss, or present arguments that conflict with her beliefs; she was required to agree with the professor on matters contrary to her faith just to answer his questions. This practice not only violates the Constitution, but also the professor’s own syllabus which promised that students would not have to agree with his views.
Professor Russum refused to give Grace any feedback on the failing grades until after she had turned in the fourth paper. Then, the feedback was a condescending lecture in which he openly demeaned her faith, misrepresented his own course syllabus to justify his improper grading, and presumed to tell her “how the ‘faith’ you claim actually works.”
“Professor Russum cannot use academic freedom as a pretext to discriminate,” said Mat Staver. Liberty Counsel’s demand letter acknowledged Russum’s right to say whatever he wants outside of the classroom, but all the online evidence of his radical personal views are proper evidence of pretext once he discriminates against Grace in the classroom.
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