Victory for Religious Liberty at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

By on January 7, 2003

CHAPEL HILL, NC—The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) has
reversed its threatened withdrawal of recognition and benefits from a
student group, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). IVCF had
been ordered not to use its religious beliefs as criteria for the
selection of its own leaders. On December 30, 2002, the Foundation for
Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) drew widespread public attention
to UNC’s denial of constitutionally protected religious liberty. On
December 31, 2002, UNC Chancellor James Moeser announced that IVCF
would not be punished for organizing around its beliefs.

“We are pleased with UNC’s decision, which bodes well for the
constitutional and moral rights of UNC’s students,” said Alan Charles
Kors, president of FIRE. “The swiftness of this victory emphasizes the
profound truth of what Justice Louis Brandeis observed so well:
‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant.’”

On December 10, 2002, Jonathan E. Curtis, assistant director
for student activities and organizations at UNC, wrote to IVCF, stating
that UNC objected to a provision in the IVCF constitution “that
Officers must subscribe in writing and without reservation to…Christian
doctrine.” Curtis told IVCF to “modify the wording of your charter or I
will have no choice but to revoke your University recognition.”

FIRE wrote to Chancellor Moeser, explaining why UNC’s threat
was injurious to authentic liberty: “To insist that a religious student
organization not discriminate on issues of faith and on matters of
voluntary association that flow from its practice of its faith—to
insist, in short, that a Christian organization not be Christian—not
only deprives the individual members of that organization of their
rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, but also
imposes upon them an ideology alien to their conscience, in violation
of the First Amendment. [IVCF] has as much right to freedom of
expression as the conveners of the discussions of the Koran at
UNC-Chapel Hill had to their First Amendment rights.” FIRE also cited
Supreme Court decisions that explicitly prohibit institutions and
agents of the state—such as public universities—from forcing a group to
admit an unwanted person or from requiring that a group express
allegiance to a particular orthodoxy.

On December 30, 2002, FIRE issued a nationwide press release, drawing
attention to the assault on religious liberty, freedom of association,
freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression at UNC. The next day,
Chancellor Moeser restored IVCF’s rights. He issued a statement: “While
the University continues to seek to ensure that our facilities and
resources are not used in any way that fosters illegal discrimination,
we also wish to uphold the principles of freedom of expression….Thus I
have asked our staff to allow IVCF to continue to operate as an
official recognized student organization.”

Kors noted, “Of course, UNC’s restoration of essential rights
to IVCF—which should be the rights of all expressive student
groups—adds rather than detracts from the true diversity of its
campus.” Sadly, the betrayal of the rights of religious groups has not
been limited to UNC’s campus. FIRE has defended religious liberty on
many campuses, and it is currently defending the rights of similar
groups at Rutgers University and at Harvard University.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education unites civil rights
and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public
intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf
of individual rights, freedom of expression, due process, legal
equality, the rights of conscience, and religious liberty on our
campuses. FIRE’s efforts on behalf of liberty can be seen by visiting
www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:
Alan Charles Kors, FIRE: 215-717-3473; fire@thefire.org

James Moeser, Chancellor, UNC: 919-962-1365; jmoeser@email.unc.edu