Brandon Jenkins was rejected from the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) in 2013 following an interview for admission in which he was asked, “What is the most important thing to you,” and answered, “My God.” After receiving an email from an administrator explaining that his chosen field—radiation therapy—“is not the place for religion,” Jenkins sued the college in federal court, alleging he was discriminated against based on his viewpoint and his religion, in violation of the First Amendment.
While the case is still underway, the administrator’s message is an alarming example of just how hostile some institutions of higher education are to ideas with which their officials may disagree.
College administrators have, on too many occasions, cited vague “professional codes” or field-specific requirements in order to punish constitutionally protected student speech—even when students are only just starting to explore the profession, and even when the speech has no demonstrable bearing on how the student performs his or her professional duties. In this case, CCBC has taken a stance that is incompatible with common sense: that Jenkins’s faith (apparently articulated only when he was asked a question) precludes him from being able to succeed in the field of radiation therapy, simply because not everyone shares his faith.
In fact, per Jenkins’s complaint, the CCBC administrator went even further, instructing Jenkins in her email: “If you interview in the future, you may want to leave your thoughts and beliefs out of the interview process.”
In other words, should Jenkins wish to join precisely the type of institution at which young people should feel free to explore new thoughts and beliefs, he should pretend he has neither. Does CCBC really want a student body composed of those who refrain from speaking their minds, challenging others, or proposing new ideas? Such an atmosphere is hardly conducive to discovery and learning.
Those tasked with admitting or rejecting applicants to colleges must, of course, exercise some discretion with respect to the sort of person that should be allowed to matriculate at their institution. In a ruling earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Ellen Lipton Hollander dismissed Jenkins’s claim that CCBC violated his right to freedom of expression, reasoning that viewpoint discrimination is inherent in the admissions process and therefore cannot form the basis for a First Amendment claim. Regardless of their legal limitations, however, colleges that aim to foster a healthy intellectual environment should, for moral and practical reasons, refrain from wielding this power to simply admit the students with whom they most often agree.
Thankfully, Jenkins’s claim that CCBC violated the Establishment Clause survived the college’s motion to dismiss. Despite admissions offices’ discretion with respect to prospective students’ viewpoints, public institutions bound by the First Amendment may not exercise that discretion by allowing a belief in God to be the determining factor in their decisionmaking. To do so, as Jenkins argued in his complaint, is to violate the Establishment Clause by preferring non-religion over religion.
The Student Press Law Center has more on the case, including a more in-depth look at the legal precedent that informed Hollander’s opinion.