For Immediate Release
Contact: Paul Fidalgo
Phone: (207) 358-9785
June 13, 2008
(Amherst, New York) -- The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has recently boasted of a "victory" in protecting a college student’s rights to religious freedom. In postings on its website and in a radio broadcast on June 4, 2008, the ACLJ has trumpeted the claim that a demand letter one of its staff attorneys sent to Suffolk County Community College prevented a Christian student from receiving a failing grade from a professor who wanted to penalize her because of her religious beliefs.
Nothing could be further from the truth. "The ACLJ’s spurious claim of a legal ‘victory’ is just slightly less outrageous than its brazen attempt to intimidate a philosophy professor from doing his job—which is to get students to think critically," commented Ronald A. Lindsay, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, who has talked to the allegedly biased professor. "As far as I can tell," observed Lindsay, "the ACLJ’s letter accomplished nothing other than providing an excuse for soliciting donations."
The scholar that the ACLJ falsely accused of bias is a longtime philosophy professor, Dr. Philip Pecorino, who has taught more than 13,000 students over a period of thirty-six years. He has a well-deserved reputation for fairness, and has served as President of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers and as an officer in many other organizations. Although the ACLJ’s radio broadcast alleged that Professor Pecorino "hates" the very idea of Christians, Professor Pecorino has taught students of many different faiths, and no faith, over the years, all without incident until the ACLJ’s campaign of vilification. Indeed, after the ACLJ made its baseless accusations, students in Pecorino’s class, including religious students, defended him, stating that he does not pass judgment on students because of their beliefs, but simply challenges them to examine all beliefs critically, including their own. His students have stated that they cannot identify Pecorino’s own views based either on the course materials or the textbook authored for the class by Pecorino, and he does not pressure them to adopt any particular position.
"I would not be doing my job as a philosophy professor," explained Pecorino, "if I did not require students to think about their beliefs and provide reasons in support of their beliefs— not my beliefs or anyone else’s beliefs. Critical examination of beliefs, including one’s own beliefs, and training in reasoning are among the primary objectives of a philosophy course, and of a liberal education in general. Only professors who are negligent or indifferent allow students to earn good grades simply by providing as a reason for an assertion ‘well, this is what I believe’."
Dr. Pecorino will not discuss in detail his interaction with Gina, the student who complained to the ACLJ about him, because he does not believe it is appropriate to share the details of a student’s coursework with the outside world. However, he does have a right to defend himself against false accusations. The core of the ACLJ’s claim is that Gina was in danger of failing the class because of Pecorino’s religious bias before the ACLJ intervened. "That claim is preposterous," according to Pecorino. "At no time did I tell her she was in danger of failing. When I had to project a grade for her earlier in the semester, I projected a ‘C’ and that was when she was most resistant to providing any reasoning to support her assertions. She was not open to examining her own beliefs or to entering into the dialectical process of inquiry in community because, according to her, she already had all the answers."
And what of the ACLJ’s claim that Gina had a failing grade average of 54 prior to the ACLJ’s intervention? "That is a misleading use of information. I use a cumulative point system in grading," explained Pecorino. "In other words, as students progress during the semester, they earn points for each assignment, with a possible total of 100 points by the end of the semester. Gina at one point probably did have 54 points, but that in no way indicates she was in danger of failing. She had 54 points, not a failing grade average of 54. All students start the semester with 0 points, so by the ACLJ’s logic, all students are in danger of failing."
And did the ACLJ’s letter influence Pecorino, either directly or indirectly through pressure from college administrators? "Absolutely not," Pecorino states. "I received no pressure form my college administrators, only support, and although I was a bit bothered by all the hate emails and other communications that resulted from the ACLJ’s campaign against me, I did not let that affect my grading of Gina. I take my responsibilities as an educator too seriously for that to happen. Gina received a ‘B’ because she earned a ‘B,’ no more and no less."
The ACLJ’s campaign against Pecorino cannot be dismissed as insignificant. As Dr. Pecorino observes, "Essentially, the ACLJ is claiming a religious exemption from the obligation of students in public colleges to engage in critical thinking, and this claim strikes at the core of higher education. If permitted to go unchallenged, this claim will weaken our democratic and pluralistic society." Lindsay agrees, adding, "For a democracy to succeed, we need citizens who can provide reasons to support their beliefs. We cannot reason together if all we have are groups of individuals who adamantly insist they have all the answers because of some supernatural revelation and who are unwilling to consider opposing viewpoints. The ACLJ is a very slick, very well-funded organization, and its animosity toward critical thinking is even more troubling than its willingness to distort the facts."
The Center for Inquiry is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization, comprising the Council for Secular Humanism, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), and the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER). Headquartered in Amherst, New York, the Center for Inquiry strives to promote rational thinking in all aspects of life. The organization’s Web site can be found at www.centerforinquiry.net