FIRE Answers UNC; Congressman Calls for Inquiry into UNC’s Actions

August 17, 2004

CHAPEL HILL, N.C., August 17, 2004—As part of its continuing effort to restore First Amendment freedoms to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s chapter of the Alpha Iota Omega Christian Fraternity (AIO), the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has issued a comprehensive rebuttal of UNC’s public justification of its unconstitutional actions. UNC-Chapel Hill has misstated governing law, misstated the actual content of its own policy, inaccurately summarized the facts of this case, and implied that AIO’s rights are unimportant because it is only one small group out of dozens. Adding to the pressure on UNC is North Carolina Congressman Walter B. Jones, who has asked the U.S. Department of Education to "examine" the university’s decision to derecognize the Christian group.

"UNC’s response is quite remarkable," said David French, president of FIRE. "Not only is its alleged policy statement rebutted by the university’s own documents, but UNC’s response relies on an entirely false argument that federal law requires UNC to deny recognition to Christian groups that wish to keep their groups Christian. UNC has made an ideological decision to deny religious organizations the right to make religious choices when selecting members even though there is no law that permits—let alone requires—the University to make that choice."

FIRE’s letter cites more than thirty years of Supreme Court cases holding that public universities must give religious student organizations equal access to university facilities and student fee funds regardless of their viewpoint. Furthermore, they may not interfere with the organization’s internal governance or require it to adhere to a university-approved message or mission as a precondition for recognition.

"According to UNC’s most recent statement, the College Democrats may exclude Republicans, campus gay rights organizations may exclude those who believe that homosexuality is sinful, and the ‘Friends of Israel’ may exclude students who oppose the existence of Israel," continued French. "These exclusions are necessary and appropriate for a group to be able to participate fully in the marketplace of ideas. At UNC, however, religious student groups cannot protect the integrity of their message because such an action would constitute ‘religious discrimination.’ As a result, Christian groups must be open to individuals who believe that Christianity is demonstrably false. This distinction makes no sense."

U.S. Representative Jones’s interest in the situation stems from his concern about an "ongoing problem of censorship of Christian students at the Chapel Hill campus." For instance, slightly less than two years ago, UNC attempted to derecognize more than a dozen Christian student organizations because those organizations reserved leadership for members of the Christian faith. UNC rescinded its threat of derecognition after FIRE focused national attention on the university’s actions. Jones stated that AIO is "the most recent victim of abusive policies at UNC," and has called on the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to look into what he calls "an outright violation of student rights to free speech, free exercise of religion, and freedom of association."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at UNC and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org

David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; david.french@thefire.org

James Moeser, Chancellor, UNC-Chapel Hill: 919-962-1365; james_moeser@unc.edu

Jonathan Curtis, Assistant Director for Student Activities and Organizations, UNC-Chapel Hill: 919-962-1461; jon@email.unc.edu