NOTE: The article excerpted on this page is from an outside publication and is posted on FIRE's website because it references FIRE's work. The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily represent FIRE's positions.
CHAPEL HILL — UNC has declined to officially recognize a Christian student organization because the group has refused to sign a nondiscrimination policy.
The fraternity, Alpha Iota Omega, would not follow university policy because it would require that membership in the group be open to all, regardless of religion. Without official recognition, the fraternity cannot receive student fee money.
A national individual rights group has taken up the fraternity’s cause. The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently asked UNC Chancellor James Moeser to reconsider the university’s position.
On Thursday, the university responded, reiterating its insistence that all student groups have open membership.
This isn’t the first time UNC has had issues with religious student groups. In 2002, it withheld recognition from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because that group required its leaders to be Christian. Later, Moeser changed his mind and allowed the group to have its recognition and the student fee money that comes with it.
The rights group, known as FIRE, wrote to Moeser during that affair as well. On Thursday, its legal expert drew parallels between the two incidents.
“This is the second time in a year and a half we’ve had something like this at UNC Chapel Hill,” said Greg Lukianoff, the foundation’s director of legal and public advocacy. “The fact that this is happening again is outrageous.”
The two situations aren’t identical. In the InterVarsity case, the group had open general membership but required its officers to be Christians. In the more recent case of Alpha Iota Omega, the group declined to follow university policy because it didn’t want to be forced to allow non-Christians into the group.
“The Constitution allows people to join associations on the basis of shared beliefs, and it allows them to exclude people of dissimilar beliefs,” Lukianoff said Thursday. “College Republicans, for example, don’t have to include Democrats in their group. It’s a basic, common sense moral right.”
UNC did tell Alpha Iota Omega that it could require its officers to follow the Christian faith, as long as it didn’t have the same requirement of its general membership, officials said.
In a three-page response to the rights organization’s inquiry, Moeser said the university has acted appropriately. Even if the student group complied with the university policy, its members would still be able to honor “their mission of providing leadership and outreach to the campus Greek community through evangelism and mentorship,” Moeser wrote.
But like all student groups, Alpha Iota Omega must open its general membership to all, Moeser emphasized in his letter.
“So, for example, Baptist student groups are open to Presbyterian students; Jewish student groups are open to Christian students; the Italian Club is open to Korean students; and the Black Student Movement is open to white students,” Moeser wrote.
Other than Alpha Iota Omega, none of the university’s nearly 600 student groups has refused to sign on to the policy, said Nancy Davis, UNC’s associate vice chancellor for university relations.
“We have 595 student groups and all but one 7-member fraternity are meeting the guidelines,” Davis said.
William Marshall, a UNC law professor and constitutional scholar, said Thursday he doesn’t believe the university has violated the rights of the students in the fraternity.
“It doesn’t mean that any of these organizations have to change their basic tenets,” Marshall said. “It just means the group has to be open to the entire campus community. There’s no interference with faith or religious beliefs in any way.”
All student groups must apply each year for official recognition status and must sign on to the university policy.
It wasn’t clear whether the loss of access to student fee revenue would affect Alpha Iota Omega. According to university records, the fraternity has received no such funding for at least the last two years.
The group’s current president, Trevor Hamm, was not available for comment Thursday.