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North Carolina Governor Signs Bill Protecting Religious and Political Groups on Campus

By June 27, 2014

On Wednesday, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed into law a bill that will allow religious and political student groups at the state’s public colleges and universities to limit their leadership to students who are committed to the group’s mission or faith.

The new law (PDF), sponsored by Senator Dan Soucek, provides:

(a) No constituent institution that grants recognition to any student organization shall deny recognition to a student organization or deny to a student organization access to programs, funding, facilities, or other privileges associated with official recognition otherwise available to another student organization, on the basis of the organization’s exercise of its rights pursuant to subsection (b) of this section.

(b) To the extent allowed by State and federal law, a religious or political student organization may, in conformity with the organization’s established written doctrines expressing the organization’s faith or mission, (i) determine that only persons professing the faith or mission of the group, and comporting themselves in conformity with, are qualified to serve as leaders of that organization, (ii) order its internal affairs according to the established written doctrines, and (iii) resolve the organization’s disputes according to the established written doctrines.

Another section applies the same rules to the state’s community colleges.

This is a real victory for the right of students to freely associate around shared beliefs in North Carolina’s public institutions. However, the threat to free association persists in much of the country. Earlier this month, The Torch and other media outlets reported on the recent tension between student religious groups and college nondiscrimination policies at Bowdoin College in Maine. The student group Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college because it refused to comply with Bowdoin’s policy requiring that groups allow anyone to run for leader of any group, regardless of whether they profess a sincere commitment to the group’s mission. Such “all comers” policies have created similar dilemmas for belief-based student groups across the country.

To the detriment of religious and political pluralism on campus, the Supreme Court held in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010) (PDF) that true all-comers provisions are constitutional (though certainly not required). Martinez involved a student group that was denied recognition by the University of California Hastings College of the Law because it wanted to restrict voting membership and leadership in the group to students who committed to act in accordance with the group’s Christian beliefs—including limits on sexual activity. FIRE submitted an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief (PDF) in that case arguing that the college’s policy left student groups vulnerable to having their missions watered down or even dismantled by leaders who are uncommitted or hostile to the group’s mission.

Since Martinez, other states have passed legislation like North Carolina’s in order to protect student groups from the dangers created by the Court’s decision. For example, in 2013, Idaho and Virginia both passed such laws, and Ohio has one as well.

FIRE commends North Carolina’s lawmakers and Governor McCrory for establishing this important protection for students at public institutions across the state. With this law in effect, North Carolina’s student groups can more freely associate on campus and maintain the strength of their missions and the clarity of their speech without sacrificing the benefits accorded to other student groups.

Cases: University of California Hastings College of the Law: Denial of Recognition to Christian Law School Group