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Court: Louisiana College Lawsuit a Religious Debate

PINEVILLE, La. ― The state appeals court in Lake Charles has dismissed a lawsuit brought by four former professors against Louisiana College, saying it’s a religious debate rather than a legal matter.

The Nov. 6 ruling affirmed a judge’s decision last year that resolving the allegations brought by James Heath, Carlton Winbery, Frederick Downing and Connie Douglas “would require an unconstitutional entanglement in a religious dispute” about whether the Bible is “inerrant,” with every word and statement true.

“It’s over unless they appeal to the Supreme Court,” Joe Aguillard, president of the Southern Baptist college in Pineville, told The Town Talk. “If they do, the Supreme Court will have to choose a religious side or say it’s not the court’s place.”

Heath, of Dry Prong, referred a query Friday from The Associated Press to attorney Victor Sooter of Alexandria, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The suit filed in December 2005, during Aguillard’s first year as president, alleges that the college defamed the four and violated the college’s academic freedom policy and an agreement reached in 1997 to settle a lawsuit they had brought in 1996.

In the March 2012 ruling, District Judge Mary Lauve Doggett rejected the college’s claim that it was immune to such suits because it is a church. She cited a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an employment discrimination suit against Mississippi College another religiously oriented liberal arts school run by a state arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

However, she found that deciding whether Louisiana College officials violated the school’s academic freedom policy would require the court “to decide the `truth’ of plaintiffs’ teachings to determine whether those teachings were consistently `from God.'”

“It is clear that this litigation arises out of a dispute over Baptist Theology,” she wrote. “The plaintiffs candidly testified that their errant view of the Bible was in conflict with the inerrant beliefs of the LC administration” and at least partly with a denominational document incorporated into the college bylaws in 2003.

Aguillard said the ruling “continues to affirm our position of unchanging foundations since 1906. The world is full of relatives. God’s word is not relative. It’s unchanging.”

Aguillard said the issue began with “The Road Less Traveled,” a book on psychology and spirituality by psychiatrist Scott Peck, which had been used for years in a Christian values class at Louisiana College. Peck considered himself a non-denominational Christian and described himself as “a mystic first, and a Christian second” when he wrote the book.

Aguillard said he would only allow the book to be taught if it was labeled as Buddhist. Faculty members filed a grievance that eventually grew into the lawsuit.

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