The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal April 23, 2003

Feds drop case after professor changes evolution policy

by Sebastian Kitchen

The Justice Department has closed its case against Texas Tech and a biology professor after he changed his policy for giving recommendations — a policy that, the government alleged, "constituted religious discrimination."

"The new policy rightly recognizes that students don't have to give up their religious beliefs to be good doctors or good scientists," Ralph F. Boyd Jr., assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a prepared statement.

"A biology student may need to understand the theory of evolution and be able to explain it. But a state-run university has no business telling students what they should or should not believe in."

Professor Michael Dini changed the criteria and wording on his Web site to alleviate any question that he required students to affirm a personal belief in evolution. The Web site now states that students must be able to explain the scientific theory of evolution.

The Justice Department in quiry was opened in January after it received allegations of religious discrimination.

Some students, medical professionals and members of the Liberty Legal Institute believe that Dini's letter of recommendation policy discriminated against students who do not accept the theory of evolution.

Since complaints surfaced, university officials, including Chan cellor David Smith and former President David Schmidly, had supported Dini and his ability to create his own policy.

A Tech spokeswoman said Dini never asked people to disavow their religious beliefs, but he wanted them to be able to explain the theory of evolution in scientific terms.

"Dr. Dini will not do anything now he didn't do previously," said Cindy Rugeley, vice chancellor for news and information "He has never required people to take a religious stand. ... He never, never asked anyone to disavow their religious beliefs."

University officials did not ask Dini to change his Web site or policy, Rugeley said. She said the change was a personal decision.

Rugeley said Dini did not change his policy, but clarified it.

"Our opinion hasn't changed from day one that a professor can use whatever criteria they want to make a recommendation," Ruge ley said. "Our position all along has been a professor or any individual ... can establish their own criteria for making a recommendation."

Dini could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The complaint was filed by Plano-based Liberty Legal In stitute, a legal organization that specializes in the defense of religious freedoms.

Institute staff said the change is a victory.

"He was forced to change his policy," said staff attorney Hiram Sasser. "He now has a new policy, and as long as he is applying it in a constitutional way, everything will be great. This is complete victory."

Sasser said Dini's actions and policy were a "clear constitutional violation."

"He won't be engaging in any religious discrimination any more," Sasser said.

Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for the institute, said: "It's sad that we had to file a complaint with the Justice Department, but telling students what they have to believe has never been the purpose of a university and its professors. We're thankful for the assistance of the Justice Department in restoring freedom to students. This is what we were after from the beginning."

The original letter to Tech from the Department of Justice outlined the concerns with Dini's policy.

"Specifically, the complaint against Texas Tech and Professor Dini alleges, among other things, that Professor Dini discriminates against those with certain religious beliefs when determining for whom he will write a letter of recommendation, because he excludes from consideration those who will not affirm a personal belief in human evolution," the Justice Department letter states.

File Date: 04.23.03