Many of you know that I (Lori) work with the legal team for Campus Crusade for Christ. I work in the area of First Amendment/civil liberties issues for our student clubs around the United States. We are facing challenges to our ability to remain on campus at certain schools due to the way they are interpreting their nondiscrimination clauses.
The Supreme Court recently decided not to take an appeal from the Ninth Circuit in a case called Alpha Delta v. Reed, coming out of San Diego State University. In that case, a Christian fraternity and sorority both had faith-based requirements for membership and leadership. The University said they could not be registered groups on campus because they did not comply with the nondiscrimination clause. The Ninth Circuit said it was an “incidental” burden to not have any of the privileges associated with being a registered group, and said there wasn’t evidence that the policy was intended to suppress religious viewpoints, so it was not viewpoint discrimination. This is troublesome for us because it seems to indicate that nondiscrimination clauses will trump the speech and association rights of religious groups. Therefore, a group like ours, that has a desire to serve the campus and wants to allow anyone to be a member, yet wants leaders who believe in the purpose of the group, will not be allowed to be a registered student group without risking losing our Gospel-centered message.
Here is an excerpt from an article by FIRE (a nonprofit that focuses on defending individual rights in higher education) that expresses well the reason this case and the trends we are seeing in many areas of the law are troubling for the future of religious liberty in this country.
You don’t have much of a choice about, say, your race, but if you don’t like your religion, you can readily change it—or even start your own! That’s why telling non-Catholics that they can’t take Mass in a Catholic church has not usually been considered the moral equivalent of telling African-Americans that they can’t eat in your restaurant. But in the Ninth Circuit, it’s now legally acceptable for a university to treat those two decisions as morally equivalent and punish groups that make decisions based on people’s religious beliefs. That’s potentially deadly for America’s tradition of religious pluralism in the long run.
I am so thankful to live in a country that, so far, has protected speech and association rights that are not in the mainstream. I am also thankful to live in a country where all people, regardless of gender, lifestyle choices, or the color of their skin, are treated as equals, at least under the law. But when we begin to see our education systems, from the elementary level up to postgraduate institutions, dictating what beliefs are unacceptable because they don’t fit with the majority’s determination of “non-offensive religious beliefs,” I think we are headed down a very dangerous road that will strip the First Amendment of its meaning as applied to religious groups and organizations. I do not consider myself a republican or a democrat, but I am very concerned about many efforts being made by this Administration that I believe tear away in subtle but very evident ways at the religious liberties of groups and institutions (including their right to act on and make choices based upon what they believe).
Anyway, one of our biggest battles right now is at the private campus Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt, although they claim they have not changed their policy for student groups, has drastically altered it in practice. Last spring they started to clamp down on registered student groups to make sure they do not have any religious-based leadership requirements that would run afowl of the nondiscrimination clause. The issue has continued to escalate and create tension between some evangelical groups and the Administration over the fall and Winter. At the end of January, the Administration held a townhall meeting in which the provost and vice chancellor tried to further “explain the policy.” It became very clear that Vanderbilt will not alter the policy in order to preserve the expressive rights of religious groups, and that they do not care if the groups are able to maintain a consistent message or preserve their mission. The University, is imposing their pluralistic values on the RSOs instead of allowing for diversity among organizations that represent strongly a variety of viewpoints. They believe it will improve groups to have people with contradictory beliefs vying for leadership because in the end, they think every group should come around to their particular framing of tolerance and diversity. The provost and vice chancellor strongly implied that if a religious group is not willing to let anyone be a member of their group, and allow any member to run for leadership, then that group must be closed minded and participating in discrimination that the University will not tolerate.
Here is a brief excerpt from that meeting:
McCarty: . . . Now, let me give you another example and this would affect all of you. I’m Catholic. What if my faith beliefs guided all the decisions on a given day?
Female Student: I think that they should.
McCarty: No, they shouldn’t. No, they shouldn’t. No, they shouldn’t.
. . .
McCarty: They can guide your personal conduct, but I am not going to let my faith life intrude. I’ll do the best I can at making good decisions, but I’m not going to impose my beliefs on others. I’m not going to do it.
The good news is that now there is a movement of students that are more vocal about their faith and why it is important to them that their groups keep the identity that they have. Our staff on the campus have been encouraged by students sharing their faith and talking with other students more about why their faith matters and why this issue troubles them.
We are now figuring out how to take a stand with several groups in the midst of the current registration process for student groups at Vanderbilt. Please pray for the students in our Cru movements at Vanderbilt, as well as students from other clubs. We want to preserve the strong message and mission of our groups there, and also be able to continue engaging students at Vanderbilt with the Good News of Jesus and the Gospel.
We are going to continue to face this ideological battle on college campuses, both private and public, all over the country. I could use your prayers as I continue to engage in this struggle.
Here are two great articles with further information on the issue at Vanderbilt—Well worth reading.
Here’s an article by Michael Paulson, Law Professor from Minnesota.
Here’s one in the Vanderbilt campus newspaper by our friend from InterVarsity at Vanderbilt, Tish.