Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, religious student organizations at colleges and universities across the country have struggled with a dilemma: accept all students as voting leaders or members in accordance with so-called “all-comers” policies, regardless of their agreement with the club’s beliefs, or forego official recognition by the college and all the resources that comes with such recognition. In response to this ongoing dilemma, South Carolina’s Republican members of Congress have signed on to a letter urging universities in the state to protect religious student groups by allowing them to limit membership or leadership positions to those who are fully committed to the mission of the group. Other student organizations should take note, because the same principles of freedom of association should protect all political or belief-based groups.
For nearly five years now, FIRE has warned of CLS v. Martinez’s negative impact on the diversity of student organizations and pluralism on campus. In Martinez, the Court ruled the First Amendment does not preclude colleges from enacting all-comers policies that require recognized student groups to accept any student as a member, even if that student is unsupportive of or even hostile to the core tenets of the group. (Such policies are not, however, required.) As applied to the facts of the case, that meant that the University of California Hastings College of the Law could prevent the Christian Legal Society from requiring its members to act according to “biblical principles of sexual morality,” including abstinence from sexual conduct outside of marriage.
Since the ruling, religious student organizations dedicated to preserving their integrity and focus have been forced to move off campus and even disassociate from their students’ schools completely. Though student groups may still exist independently of its members’ institutions, the difference between being an officially recognized student group and an unofficial group can be significant. Recognized groups can apply for money—sometimes tens of thousands of dollars—in student fees, and have access to school facilities, activities fairs, and other resources. Where a college has a system set up specifically to facilitate the expression of different views and association for different causes, students should not be forced to choose between availing themselves of these resources and compromising their missions.
As the congressmen’s letter notes, some states have recently passed laws protecting religious groups, or belief-based groups generally, from threats of mission dilution—or worse—by students who do not share the groups’ core views. According to the letter, “legislation will be filed for consideration in the 2015–2016 South Carolina General Assembly as the Student Association Freedom of Expression and Religion Act.”
FIRE has argued before that such legislation is both needed to protect minority views on campus and dictated by common sense. For example, in states without such legislation, a college may require that its College Republicans allow a Democrat to run for president of the club—and if Republicans are a small minority, he or she could win. And at some universities, all-comers policies may lead to a patently ridiculous result. A spokesperson from California State University, where CLS v. Martinez has had significant effects, remarked: “If we had a cheerleaders club, they’d have to allow non-cheerleaders.”
Groups formed for the purpose of advocating certain positions or celebrating particular beliefs can thrive only when they are allowed to make leadership decisions based in part on whether students share those beliefs. FIRE hopes to see South Carolina universities carefully consider the points addressed in this letter and take immediate steps to protect belief-based student organizations on campus. We commend the elected officials who wrote to advocate for this protection and support laws that would undo the threat presented by CLS v. Martinez.