Victory for Religious Liberty at MSOE: ‘A Huge Mistake’?

By on April 22, 2005

Several days after FIRE took the ReJOYce in Jesus Campus
Fellowship (RJCF) case at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) public last week,
MSOE’s Student Government Association (SGA) reversed course and decided to
grant RJCF full recognition. FIRE just issued a press release
today announcing this victory for religious liberty and freedom of association.

While members of RJCF are indeed rejoicing that they have
secured their rights at MSOE, some of their schoolmates are lamenting. Along
with the news about SGA’s decision to recognize RJCF (as well as the Muslim
Students Association and the Cigar and Pipe Social Club), the staff
of MSOE’s campus newspaper Ingenium published an editorial
yesterday stating that the “SGA has made a huge mistake” and that its decision
to approve RJCF “should be deemed null and void.” The students’ assessment of
the case demonstrates a very unfortunate misunderstanding of voluntary
association and an ironic misapplication of the term “discrimination.”

The students wrote:

…[P]age 25 of the Whole Student
Life Handbook, under the heading of Policy Regarding On-Campus Religious
Activities, states, “[N]o individual or organization, either internal or
external to the university, may carry on activities on campus with the specific
purpose to ‘proselytize’—that is, to make converts of—members of the campus
community to a specific church or religious affiliation.”
The RJCF constitution goes on to
state that anyone who wishes to become a member must subscribe to the following
confession of Christian Faith which begins with, “I confess and believe: ‘The
Bible, Old and New Testaments, is God’s divinely inspired Word […]’“
The American Heritage Dictionary of
the English Language defines conversion as, “A change in which one adopts a new
religion, faith or belief.” Therefore, we feel any required religious oath or
confessed belief constitutes a form of religious conversion and is again in
violation of the Whole Student Life Handbook.

Actually, RJCF’s specific purpose does not include “making
converts of” members of the campus community. The point of having free,
voluntary association on any campus is so that individuals who already
agree with (or who are interested in) a set of beliefs are free to join (or
create) a group adhering to those beliefs and individuals who may want to
embrace the group’s beliefs and join the group are also free to do so. Such voluntary
association (or even voluntary conversion) is not the same as aggressive
proselytizing. To equate “wishing to become a member” with forced
conversion and then to deny RJCF members the right to associate based on their
agreed-upon beliefs indeed amounts to a case of discrimination—against
religious students. As David stated in our first press release,
RJCF’s “standards are hardly surprising for a Christian group, and are integral
in communicating this group’s religious message. Those who disagree with these
standards should form other religious or secular student groups, not force
changes to the expressive message of RJCF.”
Furthermore, the editorial staff seemed to ignore the fact
that page 25 of MSOE’s handbook also

MSOE encourages spiritual
exploration and moral and ethical formation as desirable components of students’
personal growth and development. On the other hand, the university asserts
every individual’s right to make spiritual choices freely, and to form
religious associations without coercion or constraint
. At minimum,
certainly, MSOE must insist as an academic institution that all members of the
campus community —students, faculty and staff – be able to pursue their
educational and professional objectives without harassment or undue
distraction. [Emphasis added.]

Let’s not forget that RJCF had already existed without a
problem on campus for ten years prior to this battle with the school. As far as
we know, it had never been accused of being coercive, disruptive, harassing, or
distracting to others. What seems to deeply bother the SGA and the Ingenium
editorial staff is not RJCF’s “proselytizing” (since it has never done so), but
its mere existence as a religious group whose bylaws explicitly require voting
members to adhere to certain tenets of the Christian faith in their personal
conduct, such as not engaging in “homosexual behavior.” (Note that the SGA’s letter did
not complain about the prohibition against acts of “idolatry, premarital or
extramarital sex…, drunkenness, coveting, theft, profanity, occult practices
and dishonesty.”)
The Ingenium editorial staff also wrote:

We do not wish to condemn RJCF as a
religious group. It is not our intention to discourage religious groups from
organizing on campus. We feel the presence of diverse religious and cultural
organizations on campus is a benefit to the MSOE community. We have been
pleased to see that the Catholic Student Association has been a regular
contributor to the Ingenium. However, our issue is that RJCF’s constitution
clearly states that only certain students are allowed to join, thus promoting
discrimination. Student organizations are meant to bring students together, not
to label, judge or chastise them.
Perhaps continuing to not approve
RJCF would have been an unpopular decision. However, we believe that, in these
circumstances, it would have been the right decision.

Ironically, in attempting to criticize RJCF, the editorial
staff instead hits upon the core of RJCF’s purpose: to bring students together.
RJCF seeks to bring the students together who agree with its purpose, beliefs,
and—yes—even its “Standards of Personal Conduct.” The editorial staff’s article has condemned RJCF as a group whose beliefs are “unacceptable” and
therefore need to be remedied (see my previous post) just
because the editorial staff disagrees with those beliefs. In doing so, the
editorial staff has committed the very sins that it deems unforgivable:
labeling, judging, and chastising members of the MSOE community who simply want
to exercise their basic freedoms of religion and association—without any “coercion
or constraint.”
(To learn more about students’ rights to religious liberty
and freedom of association, please see FIRE’s Guide to Religious
Liberty on Campus

Schools: Milwaukee School of Engineering