Unequal freedoms on large campuses

March 10, 2009

Here’s another case of intolerance on the part of a university – supposedly a place where free expression and divergent opinions are welcome.

Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has banned the Campus Bible Fellowship from meeting on campus because of its requirement that voting members be Christian and its refusal to accept "nondiscrimination" language that would eliminate faith-based standards for its voting members.

Never mind that students pay a hefty tuition for which they rightfully expect access to campus facilities. And never mind that the families of in-state students have paid lots of taxes to build and maintain those facilities.

Philadelphia-based Foundation of Individual Rights in Education is coming to the students’ defense.

"A Christian group has the right to be Christian, a Jewish group has the right to be Jewish, and a Muslim group has the right to be Muslim," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "Courts have affirmed this principle time and time again. It is shocking that in a free society, public universities like Wright State still don’t seem to understand or respect this crucial component of religious liberty."

According to a press release from FIRE, "After more than 30 years of existence as a registered student organization at Wright State, the Campus Bible Fellowship was prohibited from re-registering in 2009. On Jan. 30, according to CBF representatives Joe Hollaway and Gary Holtz, CBF was informed by Wright State’s Office of Student Activities that its registration was being denied for two reasons."

"First, CBF refused to adopt university-mandated nondiscrimination language in its membership requirements that would have stripped the group of the right to require voting members to adhere to religious and behavioral standards. (Nonvoting members did not have to meet these standards). Second, Wright State objected to the requirement in CBF’s constitution that voting members "accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior" and subscribe to the group’s articles of faith. Strangely, however, Wright State has so far refused to put this decision in writing."

FIRE also wrote to Wright State President David R. Hopkins, informing him of federal legal precedent setting forth the principle that "if Wright State is to allow expressive organizations to exist on its campus at all, it must allow religious organizations to exist, to define their missions, [and] to select their own members."

The advocacy group has seen victories in similar cases at Ohio State University and at Tufts University.

"Wright State’s demands are not only unconstitutional, they are nonsensical," said Robert L. Shibley, FIRE’s vice president. "It makes no sense for the university to force a group that exists to communicate its version of the Christian message to accept voting members or leaders who reject that very message."

The university’s general counsel, Gwen Mattison, "has continued the university’s increasingly suspicious practice of refusing to respond in writing to letters from both CBF and FIRE," the press release added. "On Feb. 26, Mattison phoned FIRE’s Adam Kissel to inform him that Wright State would be recognizing CBF for the remainder of the academic year, but that the group would be required to make changes to its constitution when reapplying in May. However, when Kissel e-mailed Mattison to confirm the substance of the conversation, Mattison refused, replying only: "Incorrect – no other reply will be forthcoming.’"

And the student group had yet to be informed that the ban against it has been temporarily lifted.

Mr. Shibley said that the university’s refusal to put anything in writing "strongly suggests that the university knows that its actions are illegitimate and unconstitutional."

In addition to the U.S. Constitution, Write State also appears to be violating its own policy that organizations created "for the purpose of deepening the religious faith of students within the context of a denominational or interdenominational grouping … may register through customary procedures."

Such a case in Ohio may seem far from us here in central North Carolina. But anyone contemplating sending a child to a large state university should know that some students may not feel as free as others.

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Schools: Wright State University Cases: Wright State University: Christian Group Banned from Campus