Victory for Religious Freedom at Louisiana State University

March 17, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La., March 17, 2005—Louisiana State University (LSU) has granted official recognition to the Muslim Students Association (MSA) after the group was denied recognition for a year and a half for refusing to accept limits on its rights to religious liberty and free association. LSU initially denied the MSA official recognition when the group declined to include “nondiscrimination” language in its constitution that was inconsistent with its expressive purpose. After the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) intervened, LSU reaffirmed its commitment to the First Amendment rights of its students and recognized the MSA.

“This is welcome news for all religious students at LSU,” remarked FIRE President David French. “FIRE commends LSU’s administration for recognizing its duty to protect students’ First Amendment rights soon after we wrote the university.”

The MSA’s difficulties began in fall of 2003, when the group, which had existed on campus for over 30 years, was told that a new policy required all student organizations to revise their constitutions to explicitly state that they would not deny membership on the basis of a list of criteria including “religion” and “sexual orientation.”

After discussions with administrators, the MSA decided it could not include any language in its constitution that was inconsistent with its desired expressive purpose and was therefore unable to attain official recognition. Over the course of a year, the group effectively lost all of its privileges to reserve and use on-campus facilities, to distribute literature, and to enjoy other benefits normally granted to officially recognized student organizations. In fall of 2004, the MSA met with LSU administrators again to attempt to resolve the matter; however, when its efforts proved fruitless, the group contacted FIRE for assistance.

Over the next few months, FIRE and LSU Dean of Students Kevin Price exchanged several letters discussing and affirming the university’s obligation to uphold its students’ fundamental rights to religious liberty and legal equality. Price explained that LSU’s policies, properly interpreted, did not violate the First Amendment freedoms of its students, but in fact protected those rights. On January 24, 2005, FIRE wrote a final letter to Price requesting that LSU apply its interpretation by immediately and fully recognizing the MSA and its right to define its message and membership according to its conscience.

Within a week, Price met with MSA leaders to acknowledge that the MSA had the right to define its membership on the basis of belief and to rescind the requirement that the group include in its constitution the explicit nondiscrimination language prescribed by the university. After a few days, the MSA was able to restart its activities on campus while it fulfilled the formal requirements to become officially recognized. The group completed its final recognition requirement by attending a mandatory orientation session on February 23.

“It’s unfortunate but true that much religious discrimination on campus takes place in the name of preventing ‘discrimination.’ Time and time again, FIRE has had to remind universities that Christian groups have the right to be Christian, Buddhist groups have the right to be Buddhist, and Muslim groups have the right to be Muslim,” added Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “LSU’s decision to support freedom of association and religious liberty should serve as an example for other universities.”

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 Louisiana State University and on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

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

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

Schools: Louisiana State University – Baton Rouge Cases: Louisiana State University: Threat to Muslim Group’s Freedom of Association