Today, FIRE announces a victory for freedom of religion and association at Louisiana State University, where the Muslim Students Association (MSA) recently attained official recognition. The group, which had already been recognized for 30 some years on campus, was unable to re-register for more than a year because it didn’t want to include additional “nondiscrimination” language in its constitution as prescribed by a new university policy. (See “Is ‘Derecognize’ a Word?” for more information about the significance of student organization recognition on campus.) According to students, in 2003 the university began requiring student organizations to explicitly add “religion” and “sexual orientation” to the list of “nondiscriminatory” membership criteria in their constitutions. As FIRE wrote in its second letter to LSU:
Part of the current mission of the MSA is to “present Islam to people on LSU campus as a complete way of life” and to “promote friendly interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims.” This mission includes ways of addressing questions of religious diversity and sexuality, among other issues. The MSA should be free to approach these according to the teachings of their faith instead of being forced to address them by a clause in a university policy. Likewise, the MSA should not have to fear that it may be violating an unlawful university policy when addressing matters related to faith.
With so many cases of colleges and universities infringing upon the rights of religious students to organize and define their organizational purpose and membership criteria, it is important that we realize these cases are not simply about “liberal” vs. “conservative” politics, but rather about all students’ freedom of conscience from a university-defined and -imposed prescription of “acceptable” values and “nondiscriminatory” expression—even if some students may agree with those values. In the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article (account required for access) about religious liberty last January, reporter Burton Bollag painted this important civil rights issue as one of “conservative Christian groups” trying to “sponsor discrimination.” (Indeed, many individuals attempt to paint FIRE’s work as one supporting either a conservative or liberal agenda, which it does not.) Note that Bollag left out an important aspect of the case at Ohio State: in addition to the Christian Legal Society’s lawsuit, a coalition of various religious groups, including a Muslim Student Association chapter and a number of distinct Christian organizations, stood up together to demand that the university recognize their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and association. Protecting the rights of this diverse group of organizations, which subscribe to varying beliefs, practices, and political positions, does not sponsor “discrimination” but diversity—diversity of belief and the right to express those beliefs freely in the manner that each group chooses.
In the ongoing battles to secure civil rights for individuals both on campus and beyond, we have to recognize that equal rights and civil rights means allowing students, faculty, citizens—all members of society—to choose their beliefs, follow those beliefs, and express themselves according to what their consciences dictate. In this case, LSU recognized its Muslim students’ rights without dispute. But how many of our country’s colleges and universities will follow suit in recognizing students’ legal and moral rights to free consciences? And how many will instead enforce selective repression in the name of “anti-discrimination”?