Jones is backing fraternity; Christian group, UNC in dispute

August 18, 2004

UNC-Chapel Hill’s dispute with a Christian fraternity has drawn the attention of U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, who has asked the federal government to look into the matter.

Jones, a Farmville Republican, wrote the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights asking officials to examine what he called “the ongoing problem of censorship of Christian students at the Chapel Hill campus.”

Alpha Iota Omega, a small, all-male Christian fraternity, has complained that the university revoked its official recognition after members refused to sign a nondiscrimination clause. The fraternity contends that its constitutional rights of free association and expression allow it to admit members based on religious beliefs.

“The school’s administration has decided that a Christian organization seeking to have Christian members is ‘discriminatory,’ ” Jones wrote Aug. 16 to federal officials. “Alpha Iota Omega, and possibly other organizations, have had their access to campus facilities, services, programs and financial support revoked. These actions constitute an outright violation of student rights to free speech, free exercise of religion and freedom of association.”

The U.S. Department of Education has received Jones’ request. “We are reviewing it to determine appropriate next steps,” said Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the department.

The fraternity’s dispute is supported by a national civil liberties group, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. That organization sent a complaint to UNC-CH Chancellor James Moeser in July.

In a letter dated Aug. 12, Moeser told FIRE he stood by the decision to withdraw official recognition for Alpha Iota Omega, saying the university must balance constitutionally mandated freedoms with constitutionally required protection from discrimination.

Moeser said 42 other religious groups on campus have agreed to abide by the university’s nondiscrimination policy. They have been granted recognition, and therefore, access to student fee revenues and university facilities.

The civil liberties group responded by pointing out inconsistencies in UNC-CH’s arguments and what it called “a distressing disregard for minority rights and a fundamental misunderstanding of liberty.”

The rebuttal, written by FIRE’s president, David French, cited several U.S. Supreme Court cases that hold that universities must give religious student organizations equal access to campus facilities and student fee funds regardless of their viewpoint.

“UNC has made an ideological decision to deny religious organizations the right to make religious choices when selecting members even though there is no law that permits, let alone requires, the university to make that choice,” French said in a statement.

Jones also helped spark the federal probe in March into the case of a UNC-CH instructor who singled out a student for “hate speech” when the student expressed views against homosexuality. That investigation is pending, Glickman said.

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Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Cases: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Denial of Freedom of Association for Christian Fraternity