CLIFTON, Tenn. — Officials at Columbia State Community College say they’re investigating claims by a Christian legal group that a psychology professor’s assignment about gay rights is teaching her students religious intolerance.
The controversy stems from an assignment given to students this year by Linda Brunton, in which they were allegedly directed to wear a rainbow ribbon and make statements in support of gay rights. They were then instructed to write a paper detailing any discrimination they faced for their perceived support or orientation.
Travis Christopher Barham, an attorney for the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said his group received complaints from Christian students who objected to the assignment.
In a letter to the college, Barham alleged that Brunton’s assignment violated principals of the First Amendment.
“This assignment posed serious problems for students who did not wish to convey this message and particularly those – like those who contacted us – whose religious convictions prohibit them from supporting conduct their faith teaches is unnatural and immoral,” Barham wrote.
“Dr. Brunton’s assignment violates decades (of) clearly established law by compelling students to support in public views they either do not wish to advocate or find abhorrent,” Barham wrote.
Barham’s letter demands an apology, and alleged that Brunton told students that anyone who opposes gay rights are “uneducated bigots.”
While Brunton declined comment, Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project, a friend of the professor, said the lawyer’s claims are untrue.
According to Sanders, that assignment was voluntary and has been previously commonly used in psychology classes.
“It’s designed to help students gain empathy for gays and lesbians,” according to the teaching guide for the assignment, titled “Promoting Increased Understanding of Sexual Diversity through Experience Learning.”
“Students were allowed to opt out, and some did,” Sanders said. “And students were told that if they felt uncomfortable, they could take off the ribbons.”
David Hacker, a spokesman for the ADF, acknowledged that teaching students to have empathy or to understand opposing views is allowed, as long as it’s in the classroom setting. Students can’t be required to wear the ribbons outside the class, he said.
Hacker would not identify the students who complained about Brunton, or say how many there were. He also did not know if the organization had documents showing whether the assignment was required.
The incident has stirred controversy in the local community. Greg Gwin, pastor at Collegevue Church of Christ, located across the street from the college, said he is “increasingly disgusted by the intolerance of those who claim to promote tolerance.”
On Wednesday, Gwin had the church sign altered to read: “CSCC: God is not an ‘Uneducated Bigot’ Rom 1:26.27.”