The College Code

August 27, 2004

Last fall, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill officially “derecognized” the Alpha Iota Omega Christian fraternity. Earlier this week, AIO filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to get its recognition restored.

If derecognition sounds like a dire fate, it is, in a way. The university froze the fraternity’s university account, denied it meeting space and cut off its access to student-fees funding (which AIO didn’t use in any case).

Why did the university take such a step? Because the Christian fraternity wanted its seven members to be Christian men. Such exclusion is apostasy in the modern university, of course, a violation of the diversity code that governs so much college life.

Last fall, Jonathan Curtis, the university’s assistant director for student activities and organizations, told Sergun Olagunju, AIO’s then-president, that his group faced derecognition if it would not agree to the application form’s nondiscrimination clause, which prohibits AIO or any other group from using religious affiliation as a criterion for membership. (The fraternity had signed the agreement in previous years, not having given its clauses a close reading.) Because AIO’s stated mission is “to train Christian leaders…by upholding the Bible’s true standard of righteousness” — indeed, it aims to evangelize other fraternities — AIO’s members believed that the clause could interfere with the group’s character and mission.

Mr. Olagunju asked Mr. Curtis if he could submit an addendum to the application objecting to the clause, but he was told the fraternity would be hauled before the Honor Court if it submitted an application whose rules it did not intend to observe. AIO, which had operated with university recognition since 1999, withheld its application and asked Mr. Curtis for a written explanation of this court threat. Mr. Olangunju never received one, but as he waited, the group’s Web access was removed. It took two months for AIO to learn that it had been derecognized. Then it learned that its account with the Student Activities Fund Office, which contained money it had raised itself, had been frozen.

AIO took its complaint to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. In response to FIRE’s inquiry, the university’s chancellor, James Moeser, said that an officially recognized student group must “agree to abide by the university’s nondiscrimination policy by allowing membership and participation without regard to age, race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sex, or sexual orientation.” As Mr. Moeser explained: “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.”

The logic of this policy, at a certain point, defies logic itself. It insists on internal diversity — possibly at the expense of a single group’s whole purpose — instead of settling for a diversity of groups. Theoretically, the Black Student Movement must admit a phalanx of white supremacists, even if such whites decided to take the movement over and vote it in a completely different direction. To exist “officially,” Muslim clubs must admit Jews and Jewish groups Muslims.

But why make them, if they’d rather not? Isn’t there such a thing as freedom of assembly? Mr. Moeser answers. “There is sometimes a tension between the First Amendment to the Constitution and the equal protection provisions in the Fourteenth Amendment.” Because the U.S. Supreme Court “has not yet addressed this issue in the context of student groups at public universities,” Mr. Moeser told FIRE, “all public universities must strive to balance constitutional rights and protections.”

But the Supreme Court has addressed conflicts very similar to this. In Rosenberger v. Rector (1995), the court ruled that university programs such as the one at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — granting student fees and meeting space to a wide spectrum of student groups — don’t violate government neutrality in the instance that one of those groups is Christian. In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), the court protected the rights of members of a group from the “forced inclusion of an unwanted person.”

Why does University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wish to make a federal issue out of what amounts to letting seven Christians keep their own money and meet freely on campus? This smacks of a squabble over principle, and it is. The university seeks to subjugate individual rights to diversity, badly construed. It apparently feels challenged when students join together out of interests held in common; therefore, the university forces them to ratify the diversity code or lose their club. Talk about being exclusionary.

Mr. Sanders is a policy analyst for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C.

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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