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Victory for Freedom of Association at UNC-Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL, N.C., March 7, 2005—Late last week, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (UNC’s) attempt to prevent a Christian fraternity from choosing its members based on religious belief.  U.S. District Judge Frank W. Bullock of the Middle District of North Carolina found that UNC’s application of its expansive nondiscrimination policy “raises significant constitutional concerns and could be violative of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”  The lawsuit against UNC was filed by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) in coordination with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which first took up the students’ case in July 2004.

“This is a serious blow to UNC’s attempt to trample on freedom of association,” remarked FIRE President David French.  “As we have always said, religious groups have the right to define themselves by their faith.  It’s extraordinary that UNC needed a federal court to force it to conform to this basic moral and legal principle.”

The Christian fraternity, Alpha Iota Omega (AIO), was stripped of its recognition in the fall of 2003 after UNC administrator Jonathan Curtis declared that the fraternity was required to add an unconstitutional “nondiscrimination” clause to its student group constitution.  AIO, whose mission is to train Christian leaders, objected to adding the “nondiscrimination” clause because it would have forbidden the group from considering religion when determining “membership and participation” in the group.  After months of trying to reason with UNC, AIO eventually asked FIRE for assistance.  FIRE wrote two letters to the university outlining AIO’s First Amendment rights to freedom of association and religious liberty, but the university was unmoved.  (Read FIRE’s letters to UNC here and here.)  FIRE then connected the students with the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed suit in August 2004.

Last week’s preliminary injunction, issued on March 2, means that UNC cannot enforce its nondiscrimination clause against AIO and that, pending the final outcome of the case, the university must permit AIO to use religious principles when making decisions on membership and participation.  Preliminary injunctions are only issued when a court determines that the plaintiff (AIO) will likely win on the merits of its complaint.

The ruling was just the latest blow to UNC’s shameful history of trampling students’ rights to freedom of association and religious liberty.  AIO’s situation marked the second time in less than two years that FIRE had to intervene on behalf of a religious student group suffering from discrimination at the hands of UNC’s administration.  In December 2002, the very same UNC administrators involved in this case attempted to force the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to remove a provision of its constitution that required the officers of that Christian group be Christian.  UNC quickly reversed this decision after FIRE publicly exposed its unconstitutional and illiberal actions.

“While the preliminary injunction means that AIO will finally be treated on an equal basis with other student groups, this case is far from over,” commented FIRE’s French.  “FIRE will continue to use legal and public pressure on UNC until that university decides to accord to its religious student groups the same rights that it does to nonreligious groups.  Religious students should never be second-class citizens on a college campus,” he concluded.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at UNC and on campuses across America can be viewed at

David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
James Moeser, Chancellor, UNC-Chapel Hill: 919-962-1365;
Jonathan Curtis, Assistant Director for Student Activities and Organizations, UNC-Chapel Hill: 919-962-1461;

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