Following receipt of a letter from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the University of Alabama has made an important change to university policy in order to protect the freedom of association of religious student organizations on campus.
The University of Alabama’s policy on membership in student organizations states that leadership and voting membership positions must be open "to all students of The University … without regard to race, religion, sex, disability, or national origin, except in cases of designated fraternal organizations." In reply to the Alliance Defending Freedom letter, the university said it will amend the policy with the following sentence: "However, religious student groups will not be denied registration solely because they limit membership or leadership positions to students who share the same religious beliefs."
Alabama’s policy change ensures that religious student groups will be allowed to reserve membership and leadership roles for those who share the core beliefs of the group. Religious groups will no longer be forced to choose between accepting members or leaders who do not share in the group’s basic tenets or facing denial of official recognition and its attendant benefits. Such "forced inclusion," as FIRE has long argued, dilutes or outright confuses the message of any group and robs it of the effectiveness of its speech and expressive activity. By contrast, Alabama’s policy change importantly allows student groups to associate around shared beliefs, upholding fundamental free association under the First Amendment.
Of course, Torch readers will know that providing protections for the First Amendment rights of student groups has become all the more a concern of FIRE’s since the Supreme Court decided Christian Legal Society v. Martinez in 2010. In Martinez, the Supreme Court set an absurdly low level of constitutional protection for religious groups on campus. (For a good primer on that decision and what it means for freedom of association on campus moving forward, see FIRE’s "Frequently Asked Questions" about Martinez, as well as our case page.) For instance, we have been advocating for recognition of religious groups’ rights at Vanderbilt University, where a number of groups have made the decision to go off-campus rather than abide by the university’s restrictions upon their associational rights.
In light of these types of campus struggles, it is heartening to see an institution—especially a large state university such as the University of Alabama—developing policies to uphold its students’ freedom of association on campus. We applaud the university for doing so, and we hope that many more institutions follow in the same footsteps.