A fraternity struggles for freedom

By August 27, 2004

PHILADELPHIA — The year was 1956, and the NAACP faced a grave challenge to its civil rights advocacy in the South. The State of Alabama had just ordered the NAACP to produce a list of all “members” and “agents” of the NAACP that were operating in Alabama.

The NAACP refused to produce this list. Given the historical context, the organization’s objection to Alabama’s demand is easy to understand. If the identities of all NAACP members became publicly known, those individuals could be subject to severe reprisals, including threats and even lynching. In court, the NAACP argued that the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution provided its members with a “right to engage in lawful association in support of their common beliefs.”

Fortunately for the NAACP and for the country, the Supreme Court rejected Alabama’s demand and allowed the NAACP to keep its membership lists private. In the first case to clearly establish a right to “freedom of association,” the court declared: “It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’ assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech.”

Apparently, the Supreme Court was wrong. At North Carolina’s flagship university it is not “beyond debate” that freedom of association is an inseparable aspect of liberty. At UNC-Chapel Hill, freedom of association must take a back seat to other values the university considers more important — among them the state’s alleged duty to ensure that religious student groups do not “discriminate.”

Last school year, student members of Alpha Iota Omega Christian Fraternity noticed that UNC’s student organization recognition agreement required student leaders to pledge to follow UNC’s nondiscrimination policy, a policy that required “membership and participation” be open to all students “without regard” to, among other things, religion. Because Alpha Iota Omega is an organization dedicated to spreading the core beliefs of Christianity, the university’s requirement was problematic.

Recognizing that those who do not share the faith of a religion tend to be — to say the least — poor evangelists for that faith, the fraternity rejected the requirement and refused to sign the recognition agreement.

In response, UNC “de-recognized” Alpha Iota Omega. According to UNC’s policies, Alpha Iota Omega does not have the right to use university facilities, it may not receive student activity fee funding and it is denied access to any other programs or services offered by the university.

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It is all too easy for the university to justify its actions on the basis of attempting to prevent “discrimination” on campus. “Discrimination” has become a word that is so immediately associated with social evils that we seem to forget we live in a society that discriminates for good reasons every single day. We discriminate against people with less experience when making hiring decisions, and we discriminate against the blind when choosing airline pilots.

Discrimination is wrong only when it is based on characteristics that have nothing do with someone’s merits. A chess club, for example, should not exclude women or minorities. Your status as Latino or female is irrelevant to your love of chess. However, the chess club is fully within it rights to discriminate against people who don’t play chess, or who wish to see the game of chess abolished forever.

Christianity is absolutely central to Alpha Iota Omega’s purpose. To say that the fraternity cannot form around its members’ shared beliefs is to say that it does not have the right to exist at all.

As the Supreme Court so eloquently stated when it saved the NAACP from Alabama’s intrusive regulation, “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, especially where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”

The brave dissidents of Alpha Iota Omega are the heirs to an essential freedom carved out through the bold advocacy of the NAACP. It is ironic that UNC — in the interest of ending “discrimination” — is suppressing the very freedoms that were indispensable to the considerable successes of the civil rights movement.

(David French is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based organization that sent a complaint about the Alpha Iota Omega situation to Chancellor James Moeser in July. The fraternity, aided by the Alliance Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit against the university this week.)

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Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill