A university in Ohio has threatened the future of a campus Bible organization for requiring voting members and office holders be Christian.
According to Campus Bible Fellowship representative Gary Holtz, his group had been a registered student organization at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, for more than 30 years. Upon seeking re-registration for 2009, however, the university denied the Bible group’s access to facilities, student club fairs, advertising venues and recruiting opportunities – essentially blacklisting the club – because of CBF’s requirement that voting members adhere to a doctrinal statement and "accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior."
In response, the CBF chapter sought the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that states its mission is to defend "freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty and sanctity of conscience" at America’s colleges and universities.
And while FIRE does not engage in litigation, the group’s president says the law is clearly on CBF’s side.
"A Christian group has the right to be Christian, a Jewish group has the right to be Jewish, and a Muslim group has the right to be Muslim," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff in a statement. "Courts have affirmed this principle time and time again. It is shocking that in a free society, public universities like Wright State still don’t seem to understand or respect this crucial component of religious liberty."
FIRE wrote to Wright State President David R. Hopkins last month, citing four U.S. Supreme Court cases that uphold CBF’s right – even on a public university campus – to determine its membership by adherence to its mission and goals.
Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), for example, states, "Forced inclusion of an unwanted person in a group infringes the group’s freedom of expressive association if the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints."
CBF’s constitution states that while any person may join the group, only those who agree to the group’s foundational principles as expressed in its doctrine of faith may be voting members, a stance seemingly right in line with Boy Scouts v. Dale.
"Wright State’s demands are not only unconstitutional, they are nonsensical," said Robert L. Shibley, FIRE’s vice president. "It makes no sense for the university to force a group that exists to communicate its version of the Christian message to accept voting members or leaders who reject that very message."
The university changes its mind
Until late yesterday, CBF was still officially denied the ability to operate on campus. Following a press release by FIRE and a WND investigation, however, the university has reversed its course – at least for this academic term.
When contacted for comment on the story yesterday, a spokesperson for Wright State told WND that CBF is now a recognized student organization and that the university "[does] not discriminate on the basis of religion, and we treat Campus Bible Fellowship like any other student group on campus. … There is no distinction between it and any other student organization on Wright State’s campus."
Neither CBF nor FIRE was aware of the reinstatement at the time.
Shortly more than an hour after WND contacted the university, the student president of Wright State’s CBF chapter received an email confirming the group’s registration.
Nonetheless, CBF representative Gary Holtz told WND, "This means that the issue is resolved only temporarily; the matter of the constitutional challenges has not been addressed, and CBF will face the same challenges again when registration is required for 2009-2010."
FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley told WND that Wright State’s reversal is just "a smokescreen," and that the group’s future is still very much in doubt.
"Wright State’s statement that ‘there is no distinction between [CBF] and any other student organization on Wright State’s campus’ is the problem, not the solution," Shibley told WND. "Wright State’s one-size-fits-all ‘nondiscrimination’ language actually discriminates against religious groups because it does not allow them to require voting members and leaders to share the group’s beliefs. Wright State’s current demands are the equivalent of forcing the college Democrats to allow Republicans to become voting members and leaders of the group. This is nonsensical and violates the group’s expressive rights. Unless Wright State changes that language, it will still be violating the Constitution."