Faith group at Washburn University files a lawsuit against the university for withdrawing the group’s subsidy

September 17, 2004

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A religious group has filed a federal lawsuit against officials at Washburn University. The Christian Legal Society says the Washburn Law School wrongly stripped the religious group of money to run its meetings after it refused to allow a a Mormon to lead a Bible study. The university says the group engaged in religious discrimination. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARABARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

Last spring, Daniel Arkell began attending the weekly meetings of the Christian Legal Society, a group of law students that met on the Washburn campus in Topeka, Kansas. One day the group decided to launch a Bible study, and the president asked for volunteers to lead the discussion.

Mr. DANIEL ARKELL (Mormon): And because I had experience as a missionary for my church, I raised my hand and volunteered, and I was assigned to give the first Bible study.

HAGERTY: But days later, the group's president called Arkell aside and said he could no longer lead the study nor run for office in the group. The reason? Arkell is a Mormon, and he would not sign the group's statement of faith. For instance, the statement recognizes only the Bible as the inspired word of God, where Arkell also recognizes the Book of Mormon as the word of God. Arkell thought that was unfair, especially since the university funds the Christian group, as it does other campus groups.

Mr. ARKELL: I respect the rights that they have to discriminate against me. However, if they want to discriminate, then they have to do it with their own money, I think.

HAGERTY: Arkell filed a complaint with the Student Bar Association. He claimed he had been discriminated against because of his religion. Jesse Paine, a second-year law student who is now president of the group, says Arkell could have led the study and could have run for office if he had held the same religious beliefs that are the foundation of the group.

Mr. JESSE PAINE (President, Christian Legal Society): It's not Mormonism vs. Christianity. It's whether we as a group can use this statement of faith to determine our membership and leaders.

HAGERTY: The law school sided with Arkell, and this month, it informed CLS that it would no longer receive money or a place to meet. And so yesterday, the Christian Legal Society sued officials of Washburn University, saying that the school cannot force the group to put people who disagree with their belief system into positions of authority. Gregory Baylor, a lawyer representing the club members, says such interference does not make sense. He says a young Democrats club does not have to accept a Republican president, and an environmental law society can have leaders who stand for protecting the environment.

Mr. GREGORY BAYLOR (Lawyer): Suppose a person comes along and says, `You know, I completely disagree with your message. I really believe in deregulation. The environment's not that important.' I think the Environmental Law Society has every right to discriminate against somebody who doesn't share their message. There's no difference between those two examples and what the Christian Legal Society chapter is doing.

Mr. KENNETH HACKLER (General Counsel, Washburn University): Well, sure, we recognize that everybody has the right to associate with whomever they wish.

HAGERTY: Kenneth Hackler is the general counsel of Washburn University.

Mr. HACKLER: But what is not clear is whether public entities are, therefore, required to provide facilities and money to a group which discriminates upon the basis of religion.

HAGERTY: Hackler notes that Washburn's policy explicitly outlaws discrimination based on religion, and the university found itself financing discrimination. The Washburn case is not isolated. At Tufts, Rutgers, Purdue, Penn State, the University of Minnesota, officials have been challenged or sued for stripping Christian groups of recognition and funding, and so far, the universities have always backed down. Elliot Mincberg, the legal director for People For the American Way, says there's a clean path through this legal thicket. The government should exempt religious groups from discrimination laws, but it should not subsidize them.

Mr. ELLIOT MINCBERG (Legal Director, People For the American Way): What CLS wants is, in essence, to have it both ways. They want to be treated neutrally when it comes to getting government money, but they want special preference when it comes to being exempt from anti-discrimination rules.

HAGERTY: Which is also what critics of the president's faith-based initiative argue. They say that once a religious charity receives money from the government, they government's anti-discrimination laws kick in, and it should no longer hire or fire people, for example, based on religious beliefs. President Bush disagrees with that, and so does David French, president of the Foundation For Individual Rights in Education.

Mr. DAVID FRENCH (President, Foundation For Individual Rights in Education): What that does is it gives religious organizations a terrible choice, and that is either remain religious and not be able to fully participate in the community or forfeit their religious identity as a precondition for full participation.

HAGERTY: Apparently the courts will decide the issue, and that may take some time, since this is fairly uncharted legal territory.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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