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The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a non-profit focused on civil liberties in academia in the United States. Its goal is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities, including the rights to freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity.
About Religious Liberty
Religious liberty is a cornerstone of our nation and is the very first freedom guaranteed to Americans by the Bill of Rights. Yet on many college and university campuses, the right to associate on the basis of religious belief—and even the right to express those beliefs—is under attack. Under the guise of "nondiscrimination" policies, religious groups are often told that they may not choose the membership or leadership of their groups based on religious criteria. Other students who merely express religious beliefs in public are condemned for "hate speech" or "intolerance." FIRE’s public cases dealing with religious liberty, listed below, display our commitment to defending America’s religious pluralism by protecting students’ rights to express their views and to associate based upon shared beliefs.
FIRE’s Recent Issues
- Stimulus Bill Presents Possible Conflict with Freedom of Religion on Campus
According to Inside Higher Ed, the latest version of the stimulus bill in the U.S. Senate has now eliminated the spending for renovations to higher education facilities, which could have been interpreted to prohibit student religious groups from using facilities renovated with stimulus money. FIRE itself has fought a number of battles over "recognition" rights that, if granted, guarantee access to space on campus. Indeed, the majority of cases on our Religious Liberty page have to do with denial of recognition rights for Christian or Muslim religious groups, and the most critical part of recognition for these groups has not been access to student fee money but rather access to meeting space on campus. (Most religious groups that FIRE has dealt with have not requested or received any funding from the university, although they would be legally entitled to do so on an equal basis with secular groups.) If Congress were now to pass and the President to sign a law that would once again interfere with the right to equal access, FIRE is likely to face a lot more of these cases in the future.
- FIRE Pens Open Letter to President Obama
FIRE has sent President Barack Obama an open letter requesting that, as a constitutional lawyer and the leader of the nation’s executive branch, he and his administration join the fight against college and university speech codes that are infringing on the rights of millions of our nation’s college students. FIRE’s letter informed President Obama that "despite ten federal court decisions unequivocally striking down campus speech codes on First Amendment grounds from 1989 to 2008, the number of unconstitutional restrictions on campus speech actually has dramatically increased during that time." FIRE’s detailed study, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, found that 77% of public colleges and universities maintain speech codes that fail to pass constitutional muster.
- Victory for Religious Liberty at University of Florida
University of Florida (UF) has revised its student organization policy to recognize the right of religious organizations to limit membership and leadership positions to those who share the group’s religious beliefs. This policy might sound obvious, but it is not. Student affairs officials often get confused about religious freedom and the freedom of association. They mistakenly believe that the university’s non-discrimination policy trumps the First Amendment. While a non-discrimination policy may be well-intentioned, it may not be enforced at a public university against the religious or political beliefs of a student organization. Likewise, any private university that truly values liberty and the freedom of association, respecting the matters of conscience that are at the very heart of a person’s belief system, is in the same boat. This issue comes up all too often. To make matters worse, sometimes the student affairs folks misunderstand the law so badly that it takes FIRE or another outside organization to help the school get in line with the First Amendment and the basic principles of liberty.
- Thought Reform at the University of Delaware
After an intense campaign led by FIRE, the University of Delaware has dropped an ideological reeducation program that was referred to in the university’s own materials as a “treatment” for students’ incorrect attitudes and beliefs. The program’s stated goal was for the approximately 7,000 students in Delaware’s residence halls to adopt highly specific university-approved views on politics, race, sexuality, sociology, moral philosophy, and environmentalism. Following FIRE’s campaign, which called the attention of the national media and the blogosphere to the Orwellian program, university President Patrick Harker terminated the program, effective immediately.