SPOKANE , WA—Since the fall of 2003, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been defending the Christian Pro-Life Caucus at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Washington. It now has come to light that yet another Christian group, the Christian Legal Society, also failed to gain recognition from the law school’s Student Bar Association (SBA). The Christian Pro-Life Law Caucus was rejected as an official student group last fall, when SBA president Albert Guadagno declared that the Christian group’s requirement that its leadership be Christian was “discriminatory.” Gonzaga University’s president, Father Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., has failed to intervene on behalf of either group despite Gonzaga Law’s promise to be a “welcoming environment for students of all religious backgrounds or secular moral traditions.”
“Gonzaga’s treatment of these two Christian groups is outrageous at a university that claims to welcome students of all religious and moral beliefs,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. Lukianoff pointed out that “Gonzaga owes its very existence to the constitutionally guaranteed right to organize around its religious identity, but it is allowing the SBA to deny these same fundamental rights to its students.”
FIRE recently uncovered the problems encountered by the Gonzaga Christian Legal Society (CLS), which requires that its leadership be Christian, in its own quest for official recognition. According to CLS leaders, Gonzaga University’s vice president for student affairs, Sue Weitz, assured the group in an e-mail message that it had “university recognition.” However, this type of recognition was not the same as “SBA recognition,” which would have conferred a set of vital official benefits. Even the one benefit conferred by “university recognition” was lost in February 2004, according to CLS leaders, when the group’s SBA account was closed. Guadagno, according to the CLS, informed the group that the SBA would no longer manage the funds of “unrecognized” clubs.
CLS’s difficulties resemble those endured by the Christian Pro-Life Law Caucus (the Caucus) last fall. (The group recently added the word “Christian” to its name to further clarify that Christianity is central to the group’s expressive purpose.) A closed meeting of SBA leaders ruled that the Christian leadership requirement was improperly “discriminatory,” rejecting the September 25, 2003, advice of law professor David DeWolf, Law School Dean Daniel Morrissey, and University Counsel Mike Casey that the requirement was permissible. Denying SBA recognition means excluding a group from printing privileges and the possibility of receiving university funding.
Because the SBA, funded by student fees, acts as an agent for the university for the purpose of student group recognition, FIRE wrote to President Spitzer last November asking him to overrule the SBA’s decision and to recognize the Caucus. FIRE noted, “The great irony here is that by denying the Caucus the right to be led by Christians, the SBA is engaging in—not preventing—religious discrimination…The School of Law’s SBA both shows contempt for basic freedoms any public university would have to recognize under the Constitution of the United States and exhibits fundamental intolerance towards Catholic doctrine itself.”
Gonzaga issued a statement claiming that “the administration is not willing to force the SBA to restrict the promise of participation to all students in SBA-sponsored activities.” Christian leadership requirements, however, are routinely accepted at other Catholic schools, and both Boston College and Notre Dame have officially recognized CLS chapters.
“Preventing a religious group from selecting its leaders based on religious criteria is itself discrimination,” FIRE’s Lukianoff observed. “If the SBA were truly opposed to discrimination, it would welcome a wide variety of religious and political groups and let students choose which ones to be part of. If students find no groups that suit them, they should be free to start their own organizations without being subject to intrusive SBA interference with their beliefs.” Gonzaga’s decision is in keeping with its unfortunate history of disregarding students’ rights. Last October, it censored a student flier as “hate speech” simply because it contained the word “hate.” The university quickly reversed course, however, after FIRE sent a letter on behalf of the students involved.
Gonzaga’s misunderstanding of the nature of religious freedom is all too common on America’s campuses. FIRE’s Religious Liberty on Campus Survey reveals a grave lack of understanding of the nature of religious liberty by both students and administrators. . As part of its efforts to combat ignorance about this foundational American freedom, FIRE published a Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus, explaining, morally and legally, the rights that students have with regard to religious expression on campus—rights crucial to the preservation of a free society. The Guide is available from FIRE or can be downloaded for free at www.thefireguides.org.
Lukianoff concluded, “The university seems to believe that it is inappropriate for them to interfere with the SBA’s autonomy, but nothing could be further from the truth. By denying student groups the right to limit their leadership to only those who share their religious perspective, the SBA is denying Gonzaga students their most basic moral and human rights. The SBA is therefore acting far outside its rightful power, and Gonzaga—if it believes in the expressive rights of its students—must rein in the SBA and restore basic rights and dignities to its students.”
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. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Gonzaga and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Father Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., President, Gonzaga University: 509-328-4220; email@example.com
Daniel Morrissey, Dean, Gonzaga Law School: 509-323-3693; firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Casey, Corporation Counsel, Gonzaga University: 509-323-6137; email@example.com
Albert Guadagno, President, Student Bar Association; firstname.lastname@example.org