Cornell Continues Befuddlement over Freedoms of Religion and Association

By February 22, 2010

According to The Cornell Daily Sun, last Thursday the Cornell Student Assembly passed "Resolution 44," which, the Sun reports, mandates that "All studentsregardless of color, ancestry, gender identity, religion and a variety of other characteristics and beliefscan now vote and hold leadership positions in independent student organizations." While this sounds good on its face, FIRE has thoroughly explained that such a broad policy threatens freedom of religion and association because it threatens the right of expressive groups on campus with minority viewpoints to protect the expressive purposes of the group. (Central Michigan University got an object lesson about this problem in 2007.)

FIRE’s Azhar Majeed and Peter Bonilla have been covering Cornell’s most recent struggles with freedom of association here on The Torch. The issue has been live at Cornell ever since last year, when an officer of the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship student group decided that he could no longer abide by the group’s denunciation of sex outside of marriage or homosexual sexual behavior. (The above Sun article erroneously states that the student was removed from his leadership position after revealing his sexual orientation. In fact, he had disclosed his sexual orientation before taking his leadership position; only after taking office did he decide that he could no longer agree with the group’s requirement of celibacy outside of heterosexual marriage.) 

The resolution would not take effect without the assent of Cornell President David Skorton, which does not seem assured. In fact, Student Assembly President Rammy Salem does not believe that Skorton will approve the resolution as is. Salem told the Sun, "I’m expecting he’ll consult the University Counsel and they’ll advise him not to sign off on it for fear of impending lawsuits…I chose to vote ‘yes’ because it’s worth putting it on his desk and because it will help continue the dialogue [on anti-discrimination policies]." 

It’s unfortunate that the Student Assembly’s president has decided to pass the buck for protecting religious freedom and freedom of association to President Skorton simply so he can "continue the dialogue." But awareness is growing at Cornell of the troublesome nature of the issue of forcing all student groups to admit all comers as members and officers. (After all, that’s not how American society at large works; for instance, Democrats are not allowed to be delegates to the Republican National Convention.) To its credit, the Sun recognized this in an editorial today:

[...]the enforcement of this policy needs to be seriously considered. How will the University go about determining if groups’ constitutions are discriminatory? For religious groups, will this place the University in the position of judging religious doctrine? This hardly seems like an appropriate solution.

The Sun has hit at the heart of this matter, as did FIRE in its original letter to President Skorton, sent way back in May of last year:

Cornell should also be aware that by picking and choosing what religious beliefs student groups are allowed to have, Cornell will effectively be replacing those groups’ own religious doctrine and dogma with a different set of doctrine and dogma that is to be enforced by Cornell and its agents. This is a bizarre choice for a university that presumably wishes to maintain a secular identity that is neutral towards the diverse religious beliefs held by its students. Is Cornell or its Student Assembly prepared to, for instance, punish Muslim groups on campus that enforce a discriminatory belief that women may not lead prayers in a congregation that includes men? Will Cornell or its agents punish a Catholic organization that enforces a discriminatory belief that women may not be priests, or an Orthodox Jewish organization that enforces a discriminatory belief that women may not be rabbis? If not, is this because Cornell’s orthodoxy demands that some kinds of discrimination are religiously valid while others are not? If Cornell wishes to be in the business of picking and choosing which religious beliefs are acceptable, it will inevitably face more questions like thesewhich is why the vast majority of secular institutions in the United States refuse to interfere with such matters of belief and instead follow a policy of religious tolerance.

These questions are as valid now as they were last year, and the sponsors of Resolution 44 and its related efforts still have not offered a satisfactory answer. Dogma is important to many religious and political groups, and it is obviously important as well to those at Cornell and elsewhere who believe that some traditional and widely held religious beliefs are simply beyond the pale on America’s campuses. If they want to make the argument that their dogma is so important that it ought to be paramount, let them-but such an argument should not be couched in the language of tolerance.

Schools: Cornell University