WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind., May 19, 2004—After six months, Purdue University has finally granted a Christian women’s housing group an exemption from a mandatory “nondiscrimination” policy that would have made voluntary religious association impossible. The policy threatened the housing of the group as well as its very existence. On April 19, 2004, the women of the Stewart Cooperative housing group received a letter from Purdue’s Office of the Dean of Students granting them an exemption from a Purdue policy that effectively would have barred this Christian group from being Christian.
“We are gratified that Purdue has realized that a ‘nondiscrimination’ clause can sometimes be used as a tool of discrimination,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “Purdue prevented students from organizing around religion while allowing them to organize around other shared interests. By granting this exemption, Purdue has recognized that fairness dictates—and the law demands—that students be free to organize around religious beliefs at America’s public universities,” continued Lukianoff.
Purdue’s “nondiscrimination” statement required that student groups not discriminate on the basis of a long list of characteristics, including religious belief, when selecting members. Any groups failing to abide by this policy could face the loss of rights and privileges on campus; the Stewart Cooperative even faced eviction from the house that the group owned. As a Christian women’s group, the Stewart Cooperative could not agree to ignore matters of faith when choosing its members. When the group asked Purdue administrators whether their organization could be excused from these requirements, the students were told that there could be no exceptions. In response, the Stewart Cooperative contacted FIRE Legal Network attorney David French, who in turn referred the group to FIRE.
FIRE wrote a letter on the Stewart Cooperative’s behalf to Purdue University President Martin Jischke on November 4, 2003, pointing out that the First Amendment’s protections of voluntary association, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion forbid public institutions from forcing religious groups to abide by such policies. FIRE’s letter reminded the university that “a Christian organization has a right to be Christian.” To his credit, President Jischke responded quickly with assurances that the Stewart Cooperative and other religious groups would be exempted from this policy. The Stewart Cooperative’s application for an exemption was finally approved on April 19. The group has informed FIRE that Purdue also granted exemptions to every other religious organization on campus that applied for them.
“By taking a stand for their beliefs—even at the risk of losing their house—the women of the Stewart Cooperative have defended the religious freedom of every student at Purdue University. FIRE will remain vigilant in seeing that Purdue honors its new policy,” Lukianoff concluded.
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. Please visit www.thefire.org to read more about FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Purdue and on campuses across America.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org