Today, FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network (CFN) has released a new video as part of a series featuring students and professors whose rights FIRE has defended. Sean Clark was part of a group at Penn State University, Young Americans for Freedom, whose charter included a reference to “God-given free will” as a reason to support individual liberty. When the student supreme court at Penn State revoked the group’s charter on the basis that this statement constituted religious discrimination, and the university upheld that decision, the group turned to FIRE for help.
In Sean’s case, the story had a quick resolution: The day after Penn State President Graham Spanier received a letter from FIRE, he overturned Penn State’s decision and restored the group’s charter. Yet Penn State is not the only university to have decided that certain beliefs are simply unacceptable for a student group to hold. Both Christian and Muslim student organizations on college campuses have been told that their requirements of belief were not acceptable, while other, secular belief-based student organizations are rarely threatened.
Religious students should have the same rights to freedom of association as students who wish to associate around secular beliefs. Freedom to form belief-based organizations necessitates the freedom to exclude those who do not hold that shared belief and might undermine the purpose of the organization. Just as Christian organizations should not be required to admit atheists, an atheist organization should not be required to admit Christians. Democrats should not be compelled to allow Republicans into their group, and vice versa. To force a belief-based group to allow as voting members and leaders those who are opposed to the mission or even the very existence of the organization undermines the traditional conception of tolerance and freedom of association that is the basis for social harmony in our diverse country.
Unfortunately, freedom of association is under attack on many fronts today, including in the Supreme Court. In last term’s 5-4 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Court determined that the University of California Hastings College of the Law could enforce a very unusual “all comers” policy that requires, for instance, the Hastings Republicans to admit members of the Hastings Democratic Caucus as voting members and even as leaders in order to gain official university recognition. In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito observed that the majority provided public universities with “a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups.” We agree, and have written at length on the problems with the decision. For evidence that universities have the will to use such a “handy weapon,” one need look no farther than Sean Clark’s case at Penn State.
Finally, while we hope we don’t see too many more people in Sean’s position, it did have another benefit for FIRE. Thanks to his experience with FIRE, after graduating, Sean came to work for us and is now our Director of Finance and Operations. Sean now helps students who are in the same position he was once in himself—and we’re glad he’s here to do it!