Religion again issue at UNC-CH; Civil liberties group questions school’s action against Christian fraternity

August 13, 2004

UNC-Chapel Hill is once again facing criticism about students’ religious freedom on campus.

The university last year yanked its official recognition of a Christian fraternity, meaning that it lost access to student fee money, campus facilities and Web service. The group, Alpha Iota Omega, refused to sign an anti-discrimination clause on a university application because it wanted to choose members who have similar religious beliefs.

Now, a national civil liberties organization has taken up the fraternity’s cause. In a letter last month to UNC-CH Chancellor James Moeser, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said the university’s action has denied the students their constitutional rights to freedom of association, expression and religion.

“UNC simply may not use its nondiscrimination policy to dictate how religious student organizations must deal with matters of faith,” wrote the group’s program officer, Robert Shibley. “No group can control the content of its message if it is unable to choose its messengers.”

The university is standing by its decision. In a letter Thursday, Moeser said UNC-CH is bound to abide by federal laws and the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment, which bans discrimination “because of race, color, religion or national origin.”

Moeser pointed out that UNC-CH has 595 recognized student groups that have agreed to the university’s nondiscrimination policy, including 42 religious organizations representing nearly 5,000 members.

“At this university, we encourage students to nurture their moral, spiritual and religious lives,” he wrote. “And we do not discriminate against students seeking recognition for religious groups.”

Moeser said the university must strike a balance between nondiscrimination and free association — both guaranteed in the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet addressed this issue in the context of student groups at public universities, the chancellor wrote.

According to a Web site, Alpha Iota Omega was formed five years ago in Chapel Hill. Moeser’s letter said the fraternity, whose members are all required to be male and Christian, has a mission of “providing leadership and outreach to the campus Greek community through evangelism and mentorship.”

At one point, the group signed UNC-CH’s anti-discrimination clause, but members said they would not abide by it, Moeser said.

But that form was never submitted, said Trevor Hamm, president of the fraternity that now has only three members. Hamm said he filed a complaint with the foundation this summer after he was informed that the fraternity was no longer recognized by the university.

“I’m not sure what our next move is going to be,” he said. “I just feel that, legally, as a Christian organization at a public university, we have the right to maintain the Christian nature of our organization.”

This is the second time UNC-CH has been taken to task for imposing its anti-discrimination policy on religious student groups. In late 2002, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education came to the defense of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after university officials told the group it could not require its officers to subscribe to Christian beliefs.

In that case, the university backed down almost immediately after the dispute became public. UNC-CH’s rules now state that although organizations cannot require members to have a “status” — for example, “be a Presbyterian” — they can require them to have an interest or take a test in a certain subject matter. Rules also say officers of a group can be required to subscribe to the tenets of the organization.

In terms of basic membership, officially recognized groups must be open to anyone, Moeser said. The university charges all students the same fees to support such groups.

“So, for example, Baptist student groups are open to Presbyterian students; Jewish student groups are open to Christian students; the Italian club is open to Korean students; and the Black Student Movement is open to white students,” Moeser wrote.

Similar debates have popped up on campuses across the nation, including Purdue and Rutgers universities. It’s only common sense that student groups have the right to exclude people who don’t share the same message, said Greg Lukianoff, the foundation’s director of legal and public advocacy. That’s the whole point of forming groups to begin with, he said.

“It’s sort of ridiculous to ask a religious group not to discriminate on the basis of religious belief,” he said.

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