Milwaukee School of Engineering Breaks Promise of Religious Freedom

By April 13, 2005

MILWAUKEE, Wis., April 13, 2005—The Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) has refused to recognize a Christian student organization because of an article in the group’s bylaws that requires members to live in accordance with certain tenets of the group’s statement of faith.  This year, MSOE’s student government has requested that the ReJOYce in Jesus Campus Fellowship (RJCF) change the language its bylaws in order to gain official recognition—despite the fact that RJCF has been recognized in the past with the same constitution and bylaws.  The student government has also requested that the group be open to competing scriptural interpretations.

“FIRE has seen numerous instances of campus administrators’ blatantly disregarding the rights of religious students, and RJCF’s situation at MSOE, unfortunately, comes as no surprise,” remarked David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has intervened on behalf of RJCF.  “MSOE guarantees its students’ individual rights, but because this Christian group is exercising those rights in a way that conflicts with current campus orthodoxy, the college is ignoring its guarantee.”

RJCF, which for ten years was a recognized and active organization on campus, ran into trouble in Fall 2004 when the group submitted its original constitution and bylaws in order to apply for re-recognition after a year of inactivity.  On January 31, 2005, MSOE’s Student Government Association (SGA) sent RJCF a letter stating that it would not recognize the group this time, claiming that RJCF’s “Standards of Personal Conduct” discriminated on the basis of “sexual preference.”  The SGA justified its decision by stating that allowing such “discrimination” would violate the student government’s duty to uphold state and university policies against discrimination.

The SGA granted RJCF “temporary status” until March 28 so that RJCF could revise its behavior requirements for members.  These requirements state that “[a] voting member of this organization shall not commit those acts which are expressly forbidden in Scripture, including idolatry, premarital or extramarital sex, homosexual behavior, drunkenness, coveting, theft, profanity, occult practices and dishonesty,” and cite passages from the Bible that the group believes forbid such acts.  RJCF also states that nonvoting “attending” members are not required to abide by these standards in order to attend the group’s meetings or activities.

FIRE’s French noted, “These standards are hardly surprising for a Christian group, and are integral in communicating this group’s religious message.  Those who disagree with these standards should form other religious or secular student groups, not force changes to the expressive message of RJCF.”

After the SGA’s decision, RJCF contacted FIRE for assistance.  FIRE wrote MSOE President Hermann Viets on March 23 to protest the SGA’s actions.  FIRE’s letter explained that the SGA’s actions had violated the college’s stated policies guaranteeing students’ rights “to make spiritual choices freely” and to associate “without coercion or constraint.”  FIRE also reminded MSOE’s president that “there is no provision of state or federal law that prevents religious organizations from governing themselves according to religious principles—even when those principles place restrictions on the sexual behavior of members of the organization.”

After FIRE intervened, the SGA extended RJCF’s temporary status until Fall 2005.  However, the SGA also suggested that RJCF adopt alternative language for its “Standards of Personal Conduct” in order to receive full recognition.  In a March 30 e-mail to RJCF’s advisor, an SGA official explained that the SGA’s suggested changes make “room for the possibility that there is more than one interpretation of the scripture that the article [in RJCF’s bylaws] quotes.”  He further wrote, “If ReJOYce chooses to make no changes to its bylaws, then I feel full organizational status will be very difficult to attain…. [I]t is my opinion that the Senate will not look favorably on your organization doing nothing to remedy the situation.”  FIRE has yet to receive an official response from MSOE.

“It is alarming that MSOE’s student government believes that it can ‘suggest’ how open a religious group’s scriptural interpretation should be,” added French.  “The SGA doesn’t seem to understand what it means to allow students to associate based on religion ‘without coercion or constraint.’ As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in the Dale case, the right of free association is ‘crucial in preventing the majority from imposing its views on groups that would rather express other, perhaps unpopular, ideas.’  MSOE cannot and must not delegate its duty to uphold its promises of free religious association to ill-informed student officials.”

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 MSOE and on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; david.french@thefire.org
Hermann Viets, President, Milwaukee School of Engineering: 414-277-7100; viets@msoe.edu
Patrick Coffey, Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students, Milwaukee School of Engineering: 414-277-7226; coffey@msoe.edu

Schools: Milwaukee School of Engineering