Proselytizing 101

Broward Community College is a public school, but its religion professors consider it a private reserve

"We were all like, what? It doesn't say that in the Bible," Le Roy says. "I think Johnson did exactly what he's accusing the other professors of doing. Before Johnson, I never felt like professors were ever preaching to me."

If a fundamentalist Christian agenda exists at BCC, the person responsible for it is Thompson, the associate dean. The Jamaican-American Thompson, who received his doctorate in theology from Columbia University, became head of the Religion Department in 2001. A former pastor in New York, Thompson declined to comment for this article.

Colby Katz
James W. Johnson, a former adjunct religion professor at BCC, alleges that the public college pushes an Evangelical agenda in the classroom.
Colby Katz
James W. Johnson, a former adjunct religion professor at BCC, alleges that the public college pushes an Evangelical agenda in the classroom.

"I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on Mr. Johnson's claims because we still need to finish our investigation," he says.

Thompson has larger problems than allegations that he's proselytizing with public money. Even after filing for personal bankruptcy in 1990, Thompson has been plagued by debts and civil judgments. Among creditors who have taken Thompson to court are the City of Fort Lauderdale, Columbia University, and a local homeowner's association.

In September 2004, Thomas J. Ryan Jr., a history professor at BCC, filed a lawsuit against Thompson, alleging that the associate dean charged $11,276 worth of Air Jamaica tickets on his American Express card without permission.

Thompson admitted to financial problems during a March deposition related to the lawsuit. "I have, in the past, done foolish things," he said.

After interest and late fees, Thompson owed Ryan $15,003. He admitted to the debt in his deposition. "I take full responsibility," he said, then pleaded with Ryan's attorney, Charlotte J. Burrie, not to file a judgment that would negatively affect his credit.

"I am proposing that I will make, within the next week or so, a good-faith payment towards this entire amount of somewhere about $2,000 to $2,500," he said, "and then within a 30- to 45-day period, I will bring the rest to the table."

If Thompson did that, Burrie agreed, she would not file the judgment. The associate dean never made good on the debt. "All I can say is that there is now a judgment against Mr. Thompson," Burrie says. The judgment, which was recorded in September, shows that Thompson now owes $21,628, reflecting the debt, interest, and attorney's fees.

How much Thompson knows about what happens inside BCC religion classrooms is unknown. But the numbers seem to suggest that he must be aware of a trend toward Evangelical instructors. In 2001 and 2002, only 50 percent of Old Testament and New Testament courses at BCC's central campus were taught by instructors with degrees from Evangelical institutions. Since January 2003, all courses in Judeo-Christian scripture have been taught by graduates of Evangelical seminaries.

Gudorf, the FIU religious studies chair, says that it's feasible that overzealous religion professors could go unnoticed at public universities and colleges.

"It is impossible to know what is going on in every single classroom," Gudorf says. "Even if you read the syllabi, you're not going to know what that text is. It's not going to say, 'I'm an Evangelical text. '"

But shown the materials presented in Johnson's lawsuit, Gudorf finds it hard to believe that BCC hasn't already noticed impropriety and taken action.

"We are a religious studies department in a public university," she says of her own department. "For that reason, we have to be able to teach particular faiths, but we have to do it in such way that we are not proselytizing, or pushing, a particular faith. It's absolutely inappropriate to take something that is Evangelical teaching and pass it off as Christianity. From this, it seems they're doing just that at BCC."

Haynes, of the First Amendment Center, describes Johnson's lawsuit as extraordinary. "This is unusual in my experience simply because most public universities know better," he says.

The problem could be institutional, Haynes says. Religious studies is a relatively new academic field, and for that reason, it is has strived for credibility and objectivity. But even today, college administrators often view religious studies as a religious pursuit, not an academic one.

"I can testify to the fact that people in the field are often just assumed to be religious people and, usually depending on the part of the country, Christian," Haynes says. "It's not quite a real academic discipline, at least as it's perceived."

Still, any public university or college that pushes a religious agenda is violating the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. Even academic freedom, no matter how liberal, doesn't trump constitutional rights.

"If some Evangelical material or viewpoints were included among a number of readings with other viewpoints to get a range of views, that would be fine," Haynes says. "If it's the main text for the class and it is in fact Evangelical in nature, as it seems to be here, that would be unconstitutional."

"You can't promote religion," says Ware Cornell, the Weston attorney who is representing Johnson in his case against BCC. "They're not only pushing a religion; they're pushing a very conservative, fundamentalist view of a particular religion."

So far, the college has been tightlipped about Johnson's allegation. All the religion professors at BCC either declined to comment at length or did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Even BCC President Larry Calderon won't react to allegations that his college promotes religion. "I am not at liberty to discuss any issues for which litigation is pending," he says.

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