Christian fraternity sues UNC over official recognition

August 25, 2004

A Christian fraternity that refused to adopt the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s nondiscrimination policy sued Wednesday because it was denied official campus recognition.

Alpha Iota Omega objects to a school requirement that its membership be open to everyone regardless of religion or sexual orientation.

Officers and founders of the non-denominational fraternity say every member is required to participate in the organization’s primary mission of Christian evangelism from a personal perspective. They say it would be a lie to say they would accept people who cannot do that.

“Non-Christians would not be able to meet that very basic criteria of membership for our organization,” said Trevor Hamm, a senior from Kinston who is president of the UNC-CH chapter.

Also, the group said, allowing homosexual students to join would violate the organization’s standards of conduct, which restricts members to married, heterosexual sex.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, seeks an injunction to bar the university from requiring the group to sign the agreement, and a declaration that the statement is unconstitutional.

UNC Chancellor James Moeser declined to comment on details of the lawsuit, but noted that the school has 42 recognized religious student groups with nearly 5,000 members.

He said the university believes its position strikes the right balance between nondiscrimination and free association – rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

“We are a public institution, and we cannot discriminate. That’s the law,” he said. “Membership in recognized student groups must be open to all students on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

He noted that Alpha Iota Omega is not banned from campus, though its nonofficial status means it is ineligible for privileges that include priority access to university facilities and eligibility for money generated by student fees.

Alpha Iota Omega was founded at UNC-CH in April 1999. It currently has 37 members nationwide, three of whom are now students at UNC. It was an officially recognized group until last year, when changes in the application for recognition led its officers to refuse to sign.

In 2002, UNC-CH withheld recognition from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because it requires its leaders to be Christian. Later, Moeser changed his mind and restored its official status.

InterVarsity’s area director, Scott Vermillion, said Wednesday that the group felt its position – which keeps membership open to all – was a fair compromise between its purpose as a religious group and the need to avoid discrimination.

“We’re not trying to be malicious, we’re not trying to keep anybody out, but we’re trying to stay true to the mission of the organization,” he said. “The school recognized that and said we are being faithful to the nondiscrimination policy.”

Many campus religious groups welcome new members who don’t adhere to their beliefs. According to descriptions on the university’s listings for the groups, most do so to promote discussion and greater understanding.

The difference with Alpha Iota Omega is the expectation that members will be immediately involved in Christian outreach, said founding member Reggie Roberson.

It would be impossible for them to do so unless they already believe in Christ and the specific Christian teachings of the group, he said.

“Everyone in Alpha Iota Omega is a leader, even if they don’t hold office,” Roberson said.

For other groups, the hope is that hesitant or uncertain new members will eventually come around.

“We want people to come who disagree with us,” said Dean Owens, campus minister with Campus Christian Fellowship. “I’m not of the opinion that God ever called people to be perfect before they come to him.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Cases: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Denial of Freedom of Association for Christian Fraternity