When Elisabeth Levinson enrolled in a Fundamentals of Writing/Reading Improvement course at Community College of Philadelphia this semester, she never expected to get a lesson in constitutional rights. Nor did she imagine she would become embroiled in an ongoing dispute with CCP administrators over allegations that her English professor is using the course as a vehicle for religious proselytizing.
It began in January when Levinson, a 23-year-old first-year college student, was placed in a remedial English class taught by CCP professor Melanie Morningstar, who has been a full-time instructor at the school on 17th and Spring Garden streets for more than 10 years. While the course—designed to develop students’ academic reading and writing skills—doesn’t count toward graduation, students must pass it in order to move on to the required English 101 course. By the second week of class, Levinson says she felt that something was amiss. “I got the books and started going through them and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” she says.
The three texts on Morningstar’s required reading list? Angel Unaware, by Dale Evans Rogers, which depicts a couple getting closer to God and their Christian faith via the death of their 2-year-old child who was suffering from Down syndrome; Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations, a 2008 self-help tome by twin brothers Alex and Brett Harris, whose stated mission is to get young people to “do hard things for the glory of God”; and 1995’s Gianna: Aborted, and Lived to Tell About It—by Jessica Shaver Renshaw and published by Focus on the Family, which advocates Christianity and delivers an uncompromising pro-life stance.
“They’re ridiculous,” says Levinson of the books, noting that she was born Jewish but considers herself agnostic.
There was more. A chapter-by-chapter Do Hard Things study guide handed out to the class included such “questions for discussion or reflection” as “What is the biggest fear that is keeping you from becoming a change maker for Christ?” and “If you are not a Christian, try to identify what questions or concerns are preventing you from responding to the gospel.”
Levinson was also required to keep a journal (which she provided to PW) in which she answered homework questions relating to Angel Unaware. In addition to making grammar corrections to her journal entries, Morningstar wrote such comments as, “It would be a shame to have been alive for so long & ‘going it alone’ when we could have had his priceless wisdom and presence!” and “We are created in God’s image as stated in the Penetuke [sic] and such a God can be known and loved and understood more and more as He loves us and especially His chosen people.”
“I didn’t think it was right,” Levinson says. “I almost have to laugh because it’s so absurd, like, right-wing gone insane. It’s wrong, and it’s kind of exhausting to deal with.” Two other students in the class—one who identifies himself as “Dee” and another who asked to remain anonymous—also say there is a heavy evangelical Christian slant to the class. “It’s definitely pretty religious,” Dee says. “It’s not what I expected.”
At first, Levinson says, she decided to go along with it. “I was like, I just wanna get over this hump and get on to my next class.” But she said she became so disturbed with what was going on that by the end of her second week in the class she decided to show her mother—who is footing her CCP bill—the books, the study guide questions and the journal comments. Her mother went ballistic.
“I got so emotional,” says Ellen Levinson. “I said, ‘I cannot believe this. You’re going to a public community college.’ This is atrocious.”
Angered by the idea that Morningstar was indoctrinating students with her religious beliefs in a required English course, Levinson called her daughter’s professor. “I said, ‘What are these books? How can you do that at a community college?’ [Morningstar] said, ‘If you meet with me, I’ll explain it to you.’ But I got so angry. I’m not paying tuition at a community college for this, so my reaction was, ‘Give me the name of your supervisor.’” Levinson then called Cindy Giddle, head of CCP’s English department, told her what was going on, and set up a meeting between Giddle, herself and her daughter.
Giddle says that after she received Levinson’s initial complaint, she contacted Morningstar and examined the teacher’s syllabi, assignments and written commentary. “I concluded from reading these materials, talking with the student and Prof. Morningstar, that the course is being taught in accordance with department guidelines. I did remind Ms. Morningstar that she cannot proselytize,” Giddle writes in an email to PW , adding that Morningstar has no record of student complaints during her CCP tenure.
Elisabeth says she had no idea about the scheduled meeting until she went to a private tutoring session with Morningstar, who told her about the impending sit-down. She says, “Basically what [Morningstar] said was, ‘Do you feel like I’m making a mistake?’” And then, the student alleges, “[Morningstar] said, ‘God has worked in my life so many times that I find it hard to separate him from my work.’”
In the meeting, Ellen Levinson says she told Giddle that the books were “propaganda” and “a promotion of a form of belief,” but says that Giddle accused her of advocating censorship.
Citing Morningstar’s right to academic freedom, Giddle writes, “I did characterize withholding that academic freedom as banning books when Ms. Levinson yelled at me that I should forbid Prof. Morningstar to use certain books.”
“At that point I said, ‘There’s no resolution here, and I’m going to fight this,’” says Ellen Levinson. “So I went home and I called the ACLU.” And she says she plans to file a lawsuit against CCP “on principle.”
“What this teacher has done is so obviously prohibited [by the First Amendment],” says Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “It’s absolutely true that professors have a lot of freedom to determine what they’re going to teach in their courses. She can include religious stuff on her reading list—what she can’t do is make the reading list exclusively religious. And a professor at a public university may not use his or her position to proselytize. So the remarks that were made to the student about God—those are completely out of line.”
Morningstar did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.
Giddle says that she twice offered Elisabeth the opportunity to transfer to another section of the course, including once during the meeting with her and her mother, and that “both times she declined.” Both women say that Giddle told them the other sections were closed.
Levinson, who remains in the class, says that since her complaint, Morningstar has given her the option of reading Jubilee, a book about slavery by Margaret Walker, instead of Gianna.