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Florida school apologizes after students stomp on 'Jesus'

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has waded into a religious-infused campus controversy, asking the state university system chancellor to look into a classroom lesson at Florida Atlantic University in which students were instructed to stomp on sheets of paper that had "Jesus" written on them.

Scott said in a letter Tuesday to State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan that he was "deeply disappointed" by the recent incident in an intercultural communications class and said it raised questions about "the lessons being taught in our classrooms." He said he wanted a report on the incident and how it was handled, as well as a statement of the university's policies to ensure such "lessons" don't occur again.

"As we enter the week memorializing the events of Christ's passion, this incident gave me great concern over the lessons we are teaching our students," Scott wrote in the letter.

A FAU spokeswoman told NBC 6 that the university received Scott's letter and appreciated his perspective.

"Florida Atlantic University is deeply sorry for any hurt that this incident may have caused the community and beyond," wrote Lisa Metcalf, the school's director of media relations, in an email. "As an institution of higher learning, we embrace open discourse in our classrooms, but with that comes a level of responsibility. The exercise was insensitive and hurtful; it will not be used again."

She added that lessons learned from the incident "will help us ensure our educational opportunities always reflect the university’s core values."

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Scott cited news reports indicating students were told by the class instructor to write "Jesus" in large letters on a sheet of paper and to place the paper on the floor in front of them. The students were given a brief time of reflection and then were told to step on the paper and tell the class how they felt.

The exercise has outraged religious leaders such as the Rev. Mark Boykin, who plans to lead a march from his Boca Raton church to FAU to condemn the assignment next week.

"We find this to be unconscionable, completely unprofessional and unacceptable," he said.

At least one student found it so unacceptable that he refused to participate. Ryan Rotela, a devout Mormon and a junior at FAU's Davie campus, claims he was punished for doing so.

His lawyer Hiram Sasser shared the notice of charges that Rotela received from FAU for violating the student code of conduct.

"You are requested to attend a Student Conduct Conference," the notice read.

"In the interim, you may not attend class (SPC 3710) or contact any of the students involved in this matter – verbally or electronically – or by any other means," the notice stated.

Dr. Charles Brown, FAU's senior vice president of student affairs, said that Rotela was never up for punishment for refusing to participate in the exercise, however.

"We apologize to all of our students and the community and people beyond the community who felt it was too sensitive," Brown said.

Scott applauded Rotela, whom he spoke with on Tuesday, "for having the courage to stand up for his faith."

"I told him that it took great conviction and bravery to stand up and say what he was asked to do was wrong, and went against what he believed in," Scott said in a statement.

Sasser said that Rotela is again in good standing with the university. He has re-enrolled in the class, but one that is being taught by a different professor.

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State University System spokeswoman Kim Wilmath said officials would work closely with FAU in preparing a response to Gov. Scott's concerns.

"The State University System prides itself not only on its commitment to academic freedom, but at the same time, its awesome responsibility to the people it serves," she said in a written statement. "We are gratified to know that FAU has apologized for any offense the exercise has caused and has pledged never to use this exercise again. Clearly, there were things the university could have done differently by its own acknowledgement."

The governor didn't seem satisfied with the apology, saying it was "in many ways inconsequential to the larger issue of a professor's poor judgment."

"The professor's lesson was offensive, and even intolerant, to Christians and those of all faiths who deserve to be respected as Americans entitled to religious freedom," Scott said in his letter. "Our public higher educational institutions are designed to shape the minds of Florida's future leaders. We should provide educational leadership that is respectful of religious freedom of all people."