At University of North Carolina, Choral Group’s Vote Prompts Investigation–And Raises First Amendment Concerns

By September 2, 2011

The Daily Tar Heel reports this week that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has launched an investigation into the decision of a Christian a capella student group’s decision to expel one of its members.

Daily Tar Heel reporter Paula Seligson writes:

The University will investigate whether or not the Christian a cappella group Psalm 100 violated UNC’s non-discrimination policy in dismissing senior Will Thomason, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp said.

On Sunday, members of Psalm 100 unanimously voted to remove Thomason, who is gay, for his views on homosexuality. He had been a member of the group since his freshman year.

"We are on notice that there is a question as to whether or not a student organization has acted in compliance with the policy or not," Crisp said. "We take that very seriously and that will be investigated."

Seligson notes that Blake Templeton, Psalm 100’s general director, has stated that Thomason was removed because his views regarding homosexuality conflicted with those of the group, not because of his sexual orientation. Psalm 100’s constitution requires that members share the group’s core religious beliefs.

UNC’s student organization non-discrimination policy forbids student groups from rejecting or expelling members because of personal characteristics like race, gender, and sexual orientation, but does allow groups to require members to share a group’s organizing beliefs and worldview.

As Torch readers will remember from FIRE’s work on behalf of freedom of association in last summer’s Supreme Court case Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the distinction between discrimination based on immutable statuses like race, gender, and sexual orientation and "discrimination" based on malleable beliefs is of crucial First Amendment importance.

For example, neither the College Republicans nor College Democrats should be allowed to prohibit students who wish to become members from doing so simply on account of their gender, race, or sexual orientation—that is, on the basis of immutable personal characteristics that do not dictate one’s beliefs. However, belief-based groups like the College Republicans and College Democrats must be allowed to incorporate belief-based requirements in considering whether to take on members. That’s because the First Amendment protects freedom of association—that is, the joining together of citizens of like mind to better voice a specific message. If the College Democrats were forced to accept College Republicans as members, their ability to voice the particular message of their choice would obviously be negatively affected.

Fortunately, UNC’s policy recognizes this distinction between status and belief, and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp has explicitly noted the First Amendment concerns at play here:

"Our commitment to non-discrimination is bedrock strong but so is our commitment to the First Amendment rights of freedom of association," Crisp said. "The non-discrimination policy for student organizations tries very hard to balance those issues."

FIRE will be watching UNC’s investigation closely to ensure that UNC follows its own policy and protects freedom of association. 

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill