Louisiana College trustees and administrators at the end of March won what could be the last battle in a long war over the school’s adherence to its biblical foundation.
On March 28, a Louisiana district court judge dismissed a suit brought against the school by four professors who claimed defamation and infliction of emotional distress in a disagreement with school leaders over the inerrancy of scripture.
In what school administrators have billed a landmark decision upholding religious liberty on campus, Judge Mary Doggett ruled that because the disagreement centered on theology, secular courts had no jurisdiction in the matter.
“Under the Establishment Clause, the consideration is whether the issues which the Court will have to resolve will necessarily turn upon competing interpretations of religion, thus resulting in the court becoming ‘entangled’ in an ecclesiastical dispute,” Doggett wrote, referencing the First Amendment. “The ‘Entanglement Doctrine’ provides that a court must decline jurisdiction over a lawsuit when the dispute is so intertwined with matters of religion that a proper resolution cannot be made without interpreting or choosing between competing religious principles or doctrines.”
The case brought by the four professors-Carlton Winbery, Frederick Downing, James Heath and Connie Douglas-clearly arose out of a theological dispute, Doggett concluded.
During depositions, the professors “candidly testified that their errant view of the Bible was in conflict with the inerrant beliefs of the [school] administration,” according to Doggett’s ruling.
The professors filed suit in 2005 against the school amid a growing furor over the school’s movement away from Baptist doctrine. The professors fueled the controversy with statements they made during class, including voicing skepticism over the bodily resurrection of Jesus and Mary’s virginity, school President Joe Aguillard said.
In response to complaints from parents and students about how liberal the small college in Pineville, La., had become, the Louisiana Baptist Convention appointed a new slate of conservative trustees to oversee operations, Aguillard said: “Their goal was to bring the college back to its biblical roots.”
When several faculty members recommended using M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled” as the cornerstone text in a course on Christian values, Aguillard and other administrators baulked. The school’s academic freedom policy allowed the book to be used in the course, as long as the professors told students it was written based on Buddhist principles. Any teaching about the book also had to include a juxtaposition of Christian values against the values set forth in the book.
As soon as Aguillard denied the professors’ request to use the book as a cornerstone text, they filed suit.
The resulting court battle, which dragged on for almost seven years, was not the first time a Louisiana court was asked to weigh in on the fight over the theological direction of Louisiana College. When the Board of Trustees in late 2004 promoted Aguillard, then a faculty member, to the school’s top job, a group of donors and alumni concerned about his conservative views filed suit. The state’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school.
Before the latest case reached court, all four professors retired. While the school won the case in district court, the professors could appeal.
Although the infighting over the school raged for about four years, starting in 2003, disagreements over the school’s stand on the inerrancy of scripture are pretty much over now, Aguillard said. During the last five years, enrollment has grown by 89 percent. The school is building more dormitories and hiring more teachers for its 1,600 students. It just opened a School of Divinity, and next year, Louisiana College will welcome its first class of law students.
Aguillard attributed the school’s recent growth to its willingness to stand up for biblical truth: “God’s Word is true, and Louisiana College will never move from its position on biblical inerrancy, regardless of attacks from any and all directions.”
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