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Christian student organization files lawsuit over university recognition requirements

In a lawsuit filed last week in the United States district court for the district of Colorado, the Christian student organization Ratio Christi says it has been denied official registered status under the University of Colorado Colorado Springs’ student organization registration system multiple times due to the student group’s requirement that its “members support its mission and its officers share its religious beliefs.” Ratio Christi alleges violations of its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by the public university as a result of multiple denials of the student group’s registered status, raising important issues concerning religious liberty and freedom of association.   

Ratio Christi, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, seeks an injunction to prevent the application of these policies, compensatory and nominal damages for the violations of their rights, and other requests for relief. This lawsuit is one of several filed by Christian student groups challenging public university policies that disallow the groups from requiring their leadership to embrace certain beliefs. These lawsuits aim to challenge the controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which held that a public law school’s “all-comers” policy that governed access to student organization recognition did not violate the First Amendment. In practical terms, this holding means a public university could require its student organizations to accept any student as a voting member or leader, regardless of whether the student openly disagrees with or is even hostile to the group’s fundamental beliefs.

According to Ratio Christi’s national organization, it is an “organization encouraging and strengthening the faith of Christian students at universities around the world through the use of intellectual investigation and apologetics while sharing Christ’s message and love to those that have yet to receive it.” Like many other faith-based organizations on college campuses, it asks that its members support its mission and purposes, and that its leadership affirm basic doctrinal tenets in order to maintain its Christian identity. Such requirements have frequently run afoul of university nondiscrimination policies, some of which were enacted in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Martinez.

All in all, Ratio Christi alleges they must “abandon their rights to free speech, free association, free exercise of religion, freedom from unconstitutional conditions, due process, and equal protection to access campus resources available to all other student organizations” in order to gain registered or recognized status at the university.

Ratio Christi at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs v. Sharkey challenges the university’s student organization policies which permit administrators to deny status to groups even if they have met all the published requirements outlined by university policy. The complaint says that the university enforces a number of policies in violation of students’ rights, including the Board of Regent’s Nondiscrimination policy, as well as the university’s student organization registration scheme, which includes a number of individual policies that govern how student organizations obtain the rights and privileges of official university recognition.

According to the complaint, Ratio Christi alleges the university has violated its rights in two distinct ways. First, the policies that make up the student organization recognition process grant “unbridled discretion” to administrators to deny a student organization based on viewpoint. Second, the complaint alleges that the university has engaged in disparate treatment: It has permitted other student organizations with similar belief-based requirements to gain both registered and recognized status on campus, but denied Ratio Christi that same status.

In addition to the broad discretion of administrators, the university maintains policies that include undefined protected categories. The university system’s nondiscrimination policy guarantees that the university will not discriminate on the basis of a number of protected categories such as race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, creed, or religion; these categories are typically found in these federally required nondiscrimination policies. Interestingly, the university’s policy includes additional categories, such as “political philosophy,” an undefined term which Ratio Christi alleges allows the university to deny recognition to student groups that require adherence to the organization’s beliefs.

Ratio Christi’s application for recognition under these policies has been denied several times. The administration, citing the group’s proposed constitution, has requested amendments in order to align with the university policies discussed above. While the student organization accepts members who “agree with and promote” its mission and purpose, its leadership is held to a higher standard, as explained in its constitution: “The [officer] is a spiritual leader of the Chapter. The [officer’s] primary responsibility is that of living, before the Chapter and the world, a life which places Jesus Christ at the center, setting the example for others to follow.” These requirements are important to the maintenance of Ratio Christi’s expressive message because officers serve as role models for the other members of the chapter, as evident from the language in the constitution. The university’s request to make the language aspirational (“members should promote the purposes,” and leaders “should  profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”) would defeat this purpose entirely. Ratio Christi would struggle to maintain its distinctly Christian identity if its officers and role models had the option to disagree with its fundamental tenets — or were not even Christians at all.

The complaint also alleges disparate treatment, arguing that many other organizations are permitted to make both membership and leadership decisions on the basis of agreement with certain tenets, but Ratio Christi may not. In other words, the university is allegedly applying its policies in such a way that it “treat[s] similarly situated student organizations dramatically different[ly].”

Among the most compelling examples, the university permits several secular organizations to make membership selection decisions on the basis of adherence to a particular set of beliefs, such as support for the organization’s purpose. For example, a conservative student group only allows members who “demonstrate[] an interest and willingness to support the purposes and objectives of the Club.” Other student organizations require general members to hold more specific beliefs. For example, the Trans Student Union requires that its members “believe that transgender people are the gender they say they are” and has provisions for “review” of membership status (including possible termination) if members engage in any “transphobic comments or behavior.” It appears these student groups are permitted to maintain their expressive message by requiring membership to agree to core tenets of the organization.

Similarly, the university also allows several other Christian organizations to select leaders who agree with certain beliefs. A Christian student organization at the university “requires all officers to ‘agree to and affirm [a] [] Statement of Faith.’” Another organization is permitted to require its leaders to sign a leadership agreement that pledges them to “challeng[e] unbelievers to be open to the belief that the Bible is true and Jesus is who He says He is” and to “devote themselves to becoming more like Jesus Christ.”

Accordingly, the complaint alleges, all of these organizations are permitted to require allegiance to the group’s “political philosophy,” where Ratio Christi has been repeatedly denied recognition for requiring this of its membership.  

In a final and further compelling example of disparate treatment, the complaint argues that fraternities and sororities, which have long enjoyed recognition on campus, quite obviously violate the nondiscrimination policy by selecting both officers and members based on the enumerated protected characteristic of sex.

As FIRE has observed on several occasions, the types of membership requirements discussed above are essential to groups’ freedom of association. In fact, common sense requires them: what would be the point of forming a student group if you are forced to allow students with beliefs inconsistent — or even antithetical — to your own to hold leadership positions? Further, the inclusion of members who refuse to support the mission and core tenets of your organization severely dilutes the expressive messaging of the group. The ability to seek out like-minded individuals and form groups with them to further your purported beliefs is the very cornerstone of expressive association and the protections of the First Amendment.

In contrast to CLS v. Martinez, which challenged a uniform “accept all comers” policy that  mandated the acceptance of any interested student into the organization, this lawsuit alleges abuse of administrative discretion under the university’s student organization recognition scheme which has resulted in discrimination against Ratio Christi. However, the crux of the question posed to the court is similar: may a belief-based student organization (religious or otherwise) refuse members who do not agree with their tenets and refuse leaders who do act as intellectual and (if religious) faith role models for their members?

Laudably, the University of Colorado system has recently taken several steps to improve the climate for freedom of expression on its four campuses. In fact, just this September, the Board of Regents adopted several new policies positively impacting freedom of expression that included the adoption of a statement of “Governing Principles” on Freedom of Expression that echo the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (better known as the “Chicago Statement”). If the allegations in this lawsuit are true, the Colorado Springs campus is not embodying the commendable claims the university aspires to fulfill according to this statement.

FIRE hopes that the district court recognizes the threat to freedom of association alleged in Ratio Christi’s complaint. As these vital First Amendment rights continue to face threats on college campuses across the nation, those concerned about individual liberties must be diligent. FIRE stands ready to protect these rights whenever they come under attack.  

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