A Big Week for Religious Liberty

By February 14, 2005

This Wednesday, a federal court in North Carolina will hear oral arguments in Alpha Iota Omega Christian Fraternity v. Moeser. For those who have just started following our work, the lawsuit, filed by the Alliance Defense Fund, challenges the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s decision to “derecognize” a Christian fraternity because the fraternity limited its membership to Christian males. The fraternity had refused to comply with a university policy that prohibited the group from discriminating on the basis of religion.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this case for students of faith in our nation’s universities. Since 2000, approximately 50 colleges and universities have either ejected Christian or Muslim groups from campus or threatened to eject those groups. In each case, the stated reason for punishing (or threatening) the religious group was the group’s objection to the university’s nondiscrimination policy. As part of FIRE’s Religious Liberty on Campus Project, we have been publicly or privately involved in at least 35 of those incidents.

If the court rules the wrong way in this case, faith-based groups across the country would have to agree not to use faith-based principles when making leadership or membership decisions or risk “derecognition” and expulsion from campus. To demonstrate the absurdity of prohibiting religious groups from discriminating on the basis of religion, imagine a legal structure where the College Democrats could not reserve its leadership or membership for Democrats, the NAACP could not reserve its membership for those who believe in civil rights and legal equality for African-Americans, and the Sierra Club could not reserve its membership for environmentalists.

For conservative Christian students (and for students of other socially conservative faiths), the modern secular campus can be a hostile place. Their beliefs regarding several hot-button cultural issues are far outside the mainstream, and the modern academy is hardly tolerant of dissent—particularly dissent on matters of sexuality and sexual orientation. Christian student groups provide more than a place to worship and meet friends; they also function as a refuge from the ridicule and scorn that many of these students endure almost every day. This refuge is at risk. If students cannot use faith-based criteria when forming student organizations, they will not be able to enjoy the full range of free-association rights, and they will not be able to protect the integrity of their message.

As we have said to the dozens of universities that have sought to banish faith-based groups from campus: “A Christian group has a right to be Christian, a Muslim group has a right to be Muslim, and a Jewish group has a right to be Jewish.” This statement would seem to be simple common sense, but in the modern academy, common sense does not always prevail.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill