Our press release today details the trials and tribulations of a Christian student organization at Pace Law School that was denied recognition by the Student Bar Association (SBA). Just this afternoon, Pace Law School Dean Stephen Friedman sent the group a memo saying he disagreed with the SBA’s decision, and that if the group’s constitution passes muster with university counsel, that the group will be recognized.
Last year, Pace law student Cari Rincker attempted to form a chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS). The constitution that Rincker initially drew up for the Pace Christian Legal Society (PCLS) required its members to sign an explicit statement of faith and reserved the right to exclude members based on their religion and sexual orientation. The proposed PCLS was met with widespread disproval from the Pace Law School community, with students circulating petitions and taking part in a heated e-mail listserv conversation. The tenor of the conversation was so hostile to the formation of the group that Rincker withdrew the PCLS’ application for official recognition.
This past fall, Rincker rewrote the PCLS constitution to remove the clause requiring students to sign a statement of faith and expanded the non-discrimination clause so that membership is no longer limited on the bases of “religion” and “sexual orientation.” The revised version of the constitution even says that “everybody- Christian and non-Christian are welcome to be members and participate in club activities. … Those that disagree with any or all of the aforementioned beliefs are still welcome to be members of PCLS.”
These amendments to the constitution not only changed the potential membership of the group, but led the national CLS to revoke the Pace chapter’s affiliation status. National CLS rules state that member chapters must not agree to any non-discrimination policy that includes religion, creed, or sexual orientation. In an e-mail to Rincker, CLS Director of Law Student Ministries David Rammo told Rincker that her group must change its name to avoid the appearance of affiliation with the CLS. The Pace group has therefore changed its name to Christian Law Students Association (CLSA).
Despite the changes to the constitution and the lack of affiliation with CLS, the Pace Law School SBA still denied recognition to Rincker’s group. Rincker reports that at the November SBA meeting, SBA representatives said that even if the CLSA claims to be open to all students, the group’s religious identity would still be unwelcoming to students of other faiths. At the same meeting, the SBA refused to recognize the Muslim Law Students’ Association.
But the purpose of a student group is to provide an opportunity for students who share a particular interest to associate based upon that interest. All groups need not be welcoming to all students. Pace promises its students freedom of association, and many students all across the ideological spectrum have formed organizations to advocate for their ideals. The list of student groups at the Pace Law School includes a Jewish Law Students Association, an Asian-American Law Students Association, a Federalist Society, and a LAMBDA Law Students Organization, which advocates for gay and lesbian rights. All of these groups are free to pursue their own goals, and none are required to appeal to the particular sensibilities of all members of the Pace community.
While Pace grants the SBA the authority to recognize student organizations, if the SBA wields power in a biased manner, then the administration has a duty to intervene, to ensure that all students and student groups are treated fairly. FIRE therefore wrote to Law School Dean Stephen Friedman on January 11 in the hopes that “as leaders in the field of law and institutional governance, the Pace administration [would] step in where the Student Bar Association has failed, to correct its unjust, arbitrary, and discriminatory errors.” Friedman responded to FIRE on January 19.
Friedman’s memo, sent at 3:00 this afternoon, leaves a few questions to be answered, but points toward renewed hope for the CLSA.