This Month in FIRE History: The Battle over Freedom of Association on Campus

By December 21, 2010

The fight for freedom of association at universities is an ongoing one, and we need look no further than FIRE’s December archives to see how crucial these debates are to the preservation of liberty on campus. In light of this year’s Supreme Court decision in CLS v. Martinez, it is more important than ever to review these cases and their importance.

In December 2002, school administrators at both Rutgers University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) attempted to shut down Christian groups because these organizations used religious criteria to select their leaders. Though both the InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship (IVMECF) at Rutgers and the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) at UNC had open membership for individuals of all faiths, university administrators labeled their guidelines for religious governance "discriminatory." The groups were derecognized and denied funding and official status on campus simply because they required that group leaders believe in the group’s mission. In light of this violation of the students’ freedom of association, FIRE publicly challenged UNC’s administration to reinstate IVCF, and our Legal Network took action against Rutgers, filing a lawsuit against the university. Due to our legal efforts and public awareness campaign, both Rutgers and UNC backed down.

Just a year after the cases at Rutgers and UNC, in December 2003, Gonzaga Law School denied recognition to the Pro-Life Law Caucus because of its Christian character. Despite hearing advice from professor David DeWolf, Dean Daniel Morrissey, and University Counsel Mike Casey that the group be recognized and that Gonzaga fulfill its promise of a "welcoming environment for students of all religious backgrounds or secular moral traditions," the Student Bar Association refused to allow the group on campus because of its requirement that its leadership be Christian. When the Pro-Life Caucus’ attempts at internal resolution failed, the group turned to FIRE and we took the case public. Unfortunately, the school responded with silence and insisted on abandoning its own promises of freedom of association.

More recently, in December 2005, California State University at San Bernardino (CSUSB) denied recognition to the school’s Christian Student Association (CSA) because of its views on sexual morality and religious membership requirements, arguing that the group had to admit non-Christians and homosexuals. Responding to the case, FIRE stressed that, "CSA is not discriminating based on students’ status, but trying to express its religious faith and adhere to its beliefs … " Despite legal and public pressure, CSUSB stood by its decision.

Fortunately, FIRE has secured a number of victories in our fight to ensure the protection of freedom of association and religious liberties on campus. Five years ago this month, FIRE made significant progress in our case at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, when the school suspended its ban on Bible studies led by resident assistantseven those that took place in their own private dorm rooms! Months later, the school’s Board of Regents reversed the ban altogether.

While FIRE certainly celebrates victories like the ones at Rutgers and Wisconsin, we know that our work is far from over. In the face of the CLS v. Martinez decision, FIRE will need to work harder than ever in coming years to defend the freedom of association of all campus groups and to ensure that the religious freedom of all students is respected.