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Tufts Christian Fellowship Gives Up on Recognition

Photo: Goddard Chapel - Tufts University Wikimedia Commons

FIRE has some lamentable news out of Tufts University, as the Tufts Christian Fellowship has given up its quest for recognition by declining to apply for an exception to the university's "all-comers"-style student group policy. The existence of the Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF) on campus has actually been threatened since 2000, when, in one of FIRE's earliest cases, FIRE helped the group maintain its recognition. 

The Supreme Court's misguided decision in 2010's Christian Legal Society v. Martinez stated that public universities do not violate the First Amendment by requiring all recognized groups on campus to accept all students as members, regardless of whether or not they agree with (or are even hostile to) the group's beliefs. Tufts is not public, but since then, belief-based groups on both public and private campuses have come under increasing pressure for maintaining rules that require leaders (and sometimes voting members) to share the beliefs of the group. This has been a big change, since belief-based requirements for expressive groups were largely uncontroversial until fairly recently. Post-Martinez, evangelical Christian groups have been the most common targets of the policies, but Catholic groups have also been targeted at schools like Vanderbilt University.

At Tufts, as at virtually every other school where this has become an issue, the core dispute concerned whether or not students who disagree with TCF's belief that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful should be eligible to lead the group. To be clear, TCF accepts LGBT members or leaders who share TCF's religious views. Indeed, a few months back, The Tufts Daily carried an op-ed from a leader of TCF who states that she is "attracted to both men and women" but is committed to TCF's religious beliefs on sexuality.

I blogged about the Tufts controversy back in December, noting that a student group called CARE (Coalition Against Religious Exclusion) had taken the lead in opposing TCF's existence on campus with its current rules. I titled the blog "Can Tufts Handle Religious Pluralism?" (obviously, we now know the answer is "no") and wrote this about the nature of the campaign against TCF:

CARE is actually arguing that its beliefs about religion be privileged over the beliefs of other groups and established as the rule for all religions at Tufts. Take another look at the "About" section of its Facebook page:

We want to live on a campus where students can gather into moral communities that evolve organically according to the community's needs—not artificial boxes where students are blinded from the hateful practices of their elites, where their spirituality is imposed upon and defined for them. We want a campus where the community molds its institutions, not the converse. 

CARE-affiliated students may be surprised to realize that this can be read as a form of religious manifesto or confession. It makes a statement about the proper source of doctrine: "moral communities that evolve organically according to the community's needs." It makes a value judgment about those who subscribe to a predefined moral code ("artificial boxes where students are blinded from the hateful practices of their elites"). It opposes TCF's form of religious organization ("where their spirituality is imposed upon and defined for them"). And it calls for an institutionalization of CARE's own beliefs and an exclusion of those (like TCF) who don't share them: "We want a campus where the community molds its institutions, not the converse." It may not be the 95 Theses, but it's definitely a statement calling for religious and societal reform. 

CARE appears to have gotten its wish. Tufts attempted to square the circle of its policy by allowing groups like TCF to apply to the university chaplain for a "justified exemption" to the policy, but TCF ultimately declined to do so. Why?

[T]he group cited the [Committee on Student Life] policy's failure to make a distinction between sexual orientation and sexual expression as its reason for not employing it to apply for re-recognition. 

"Our desire for every leader is to submit their sexual expression to the will of God," senior Ezichi Ednah Nwafor, one of six members of TCF's leadership board, or Vision and Planning Team, said. "We wouldn't be able to really make that distinction if we put together expression and orientation under one category."

If I understand this correctly, TCF is saying that it did not want to apply for an exemption from Tufts' policy forbidding discrimination against students with same-sex orientations because it did not want to keep people with such orientations out of the group. Rather, TCF wanted to be able to restrict leadership to those who believe that sex should only take place within heterosexual marriage, regardless of sexual orientation. As a result, "the group will no longer retain the right to reserve room space on campus, use Tufts' name or apply for TCU Treasury funding."

So, for fans of diversity of belief on campus, here's how all-comers policies end: Groups who feel it's important to have belief-based requirements for membership—and to be honest about those requirements instead of engaging in de facto discrimination—are to be kicked off campus and denied even the ability to use the university's name to identify their location. (Here's the website for "University Catholic," which used to be "Vandy Catholic." Expect more of this sort of thing in the future.) For those who support diversity and pluralism on campus, it's hard to see this as a beneficial development. 

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