Victory for Freedom of Association at Pace Law School

August 8, 2007

FIRE’s press release today announces that Pace Law School has given final approval to the constitution of the Christian Law Students Association (CLSA). The Christian student organization had been fighting an uphill battle all year: it was first denied recognition by the Student Bar Association because of its explicitly Christian mission, and then was only provisionally recognized by the administration, which insisted on reviewing and possibly revising the group’s constitution, apparently in an effort to ensure that non-Christian students would be welcome.
In March, 2006, Pace law student Cari Rincker tried to form a chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) and followed the national group’s model constitution, which requires members to adhere to Christian doctrine as defined by CLS and allows the group to prohibit membership on the basis of religion or sexual orientation. Finding that the Pace community was hostile toward the proposed group, Rincker revised the CLSA’s anti-discrimination clause to open membership to all students, regardless of “religion or Christian denomination” and “sexual orientation.” The CLSA also dropped the clause requiring adherence to Christian doctrine. The national CLS reacted to these changes by prohibiting the Pace group from calling itself a CLS affiliate, prompting Rincker to change the organization’s name from the Pace Christian Legal Society (PCLS) to the Christian Law Students Association (CLSA). But the group’s travails were not over, as the press release relates:

Despite the amended constitution, the existence of other groups such as the Jewish Law Students Association, and Pace’s clear promise to grant students freedom of association, at its November meeting the Student Bar Association rejected the group’s application for recognition. In a January 11, 2007, letter to then-Law School Dean Stephen J. Friedman, FIRE expressed its hope that “as leaders in the field of law and institutional governance, the Pace administration [would] step in where the Student Bar Association has failed, to correct its unjust, arbitrary, and discriminatory errors.” Friedman took that advice and promised to render a decision on the group’s recognition by January 29.
Yet an entire month passed before Friedman announced that Pace would provisionally recognize the CLSA, but that the university’s legal counsel had to review and possibly revise the CLSA constitution. Rincker reports she met with Pace Law School administrators late in the school year and reviewed the revised constitution, which both parties now find acceptable. The CLSA will begin the 2007-2008 school year as a fully recognized student group, with the same rights as all other groups on campus.

FIRE is pleased that Pace has recognized its institutional duty to adhere to its own principles and promises of freedom of association. Even though CLSA has achieved its right to associate freely, the organization never should have been denied recognition in the first place.
Needless to say, concerns at Pace remain. As the press release says, just recently “a former Pace University student ha[s] been charged with hate crimes for allegedly placing a Koran in a toilet on two occasions.” As Greg mentioned in a blog last week, FIRE rejects categorizing the Koran-flushing incident as a “hate crime,” as “[s]ymbolic speech is protected speech even if it angers and offends entire religious groups: the Constitution offers no special exception for the holy books of any religion. This is true whether that book is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or the Tao te Ching.” We’ll be following that story as the situation develops.

Schools:  Pace University