Georgia Southern University ordered a proselytizing professor to stop promoting religion in his classroom after a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science prompted a university investigation.
FFRF worked with renowned evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins of RDFRS and Jerry Coyne to send a joint letter Oct. 21, 2014. The letter asked Georgia Southern University in Statesboro to investigate History professor Emerson McMullen’s promotion of creationism and other religious beliefs in his classroom.
GSU issued McMullen a memorandum detailing the results of its investigation. The memo directed McMullen to “cease religious discussion unrelated to the subject matter of [his] curriculum” and threatened termination if he did not comply.
The university’s comprehensive review of course syllabi, exams, extra credit opportunities, and course evaluations revealed several troubling issues.
The university confirmed the allegations, and uncovered other troubling practices. These include adding an extra credit question asking students to identify one of the Ten Comandments in each exam McMullen gave between Fall 2012 and Fall 2014. The memo said that McMullen is “directed to avoid asking religion-based questions on examinations where such questions are not related to the curriculum of the course.”
The report also confirmed that McMullen had indeed offered an extra credit assignment that asked students to see the Christian movie “God Is Not Dead” and write a two-page report on the movie “concentrating on the arguments given in class,” which center on the existence of God. The report also listed comments from student course evaluations saying that McMullen:
- “had a Christian agenda”
- “preaches the Bible”
- “pushed Christianity”
- “stands up for faith and against evolution and atheism”
- “pounded into our heads that ‘evolution is a lie;’ ‘accept Jesus’ ”
“ ‘The University's interest [in restricting speech] is most obvious when student complaints suggest apparent coercion – even when not intended by the professor.’ Considering ‘the coercive effect upon students that a professor’s speech inherently possesses,’ it is inappropriate for you to interject your personal religious beliefs into classroom and class-related discussions with students, and you are accordingly directed to stop doing so immediately,” reads the memo, quoting the case Bishop v. Aronov. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Georgia, held in that case that a university could instruct a professor not to teach creationism. FFRF and RDFRS relied on Bishop in their letter.
McMullen signed the memo, acknowledging that he had received and read it, on Dec. 5.
Coyne is the author of Why Evolution is True and Dawkins of such books as The Greatest Show on Earth and The Selfish Gene, as well as his international blockbuster The God Delusion. Coyne’s new book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, is due out in May. Both men are honorary directors of FFRF, a national state/church watchdog with more than 21,500 members, including 400 members in Georgia.