University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Denies Recognition to Another Christian Group

By on August 12, 2004

CHAPEL HILL, N.C., August 12, 2004—For the second time in less than two
years, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has denied recognition
to a Christian group, claiming that the group’s desire to limit its membership
to Christians constitutes “discrimination.”

“A Christian group has a right to be Christian, a Muslim group has a right
to be Muslim, and a Jewish group has a right to be Jewish,” said David
French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
“It seems absurd that anyone in a free society would have to make this
argument, but time and time again FIRE has had to fight for this constitutional
right at universities.”

The Alpha Iota Omega Christian fraternity (AIO) at UNC contacted FIRE when,
according to AIO leaders, the university suspended the group’s recognition
and froze its university account and web access without warning. This occurred
after AIO objected to signing an agreement which would have prohibited the use
of religious affiliation as a criterion for membership—because following
such a policy would defeat the very purpose of having a Christian fraternity.
Unrecognized groups do not have official rights at UNC and may not reserve space
on campus, apply for funding from mandatory student fees, or take advantage
of a variety of other rights and privileges that all recognized groups enjoy.

UNC’s decision is all the more shocking in light of the fact that this is the
second time in less than two years that FIRE has had to intervene on behalf
of a religious student group suffering from discrimination at the hands of UNC’s
administration. In December of 2002, the very same UNC administrators attempted
to force the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to remove a provision of its
constitution that required the officers of that Christian group be Christian.
UNC quickly reversed this decision after FIRE publicly exposed its unconstitutional
and illiberal actions. Indeed, there have been dozens of cases in which universities
have nonsensically punished religious organizations for alleged “discrimination”
when they used religious criteria to make religiously significant decisions.

UNC’s latest episode of discrimination against religious students began
during the fall of 2003, when Segun Olagunju, at that time AIO’s president,
met with Jonathan Curtis, UNC’s assistant director for student activities
and organizations, to discuss his concerns about the group’s application
for recognition. Olagunju reports that during their meeting he offered to submit
the fraternity’s application to the administration along with an addendum
objecting to the clause in the application that prohibits the use of religious
affiliation as a criterion for membership. Curtis, the same administrator who
initiated action against InterVarsity (and other Christian groups) in 2002,
informed Olagunju that AIO was required to agree to the clause or face derecognition.
Under these circumstances, AIO, which has been officially recognized every year
since January of 1999, decided not to submit the application containing the
nondiscrimination clause.

The members of AIO believe that the clause preventing the fraternity from choosing
its members on the basis of religion would hinder its ability to maintain its
religious character and mission. AIO defines its mission as, “to train
Christian leaders… by upholding the Bible’s true standard of righteousness.”

“For more than twenty years, it has been the law that public universities
must provide equal access to religious student organizations. These universities
cannot condition that access on the adoption of nondiscrimination regulations
that strike at the heart of the religious character of the group,” said
FIRE’s French.

In July of 2004, FIRE wrote to UNC Chancellor James Moeser, saying, “UNC simply
may not use its nondiscrimination policy to dictate how religious student organizations
must deal with matters of faith. If UNC allows expressive organizations to exist
at all on its campus, then it must allow religious organizations to exist, to
select their own members, and to establish policies and practices in pursuit
of their goals. No group can control the content of its message if it is unable
to choose its messengers.” While FIRE also expressed a desire to resolve the
matter amicably, UNC has yet to attempt to refute the students’ claims or even
to defend its actions.

“It is particularly disappointing that UNC has once again denied basic
constitutional rights to its religious student organizations. Unlike some other
university administrations, UNC’s leadership—because of its actions
less than two years ago—is intimately familiar with the constitutional
rights of religious students. UNC lacks any excuse for its shameful actions,”
said French.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil
liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across
the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process,
freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s
colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at UNC and
on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org

David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; david.french@thefire.org

James Moeser, Chancellor, UNC-Chapel Hill: 919-962-1365; james_moeser@unc.edu

Jonathan Curtis, Assistant Director for Student Activities and Organizations,
UNC-Chapel Hill: 919-962-1461; jon@email.unc.edu

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill