CHAPEL HILL, NC—The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) has reversed its threatened withdrawal of recognition and benefits from a student group, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). IVCF had been ordered not to use its religious beliefs as criteria for the selection of its own leaders. On December 30, 2002, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) drew widespread public attention to UNC’s denial of constitutionally protected religious liberty. On December 31, 2002, UNC Chancellor James Moeser announced that IVCF would not be punished for organizing around its beliefs.
“We are pleased with UNC’s decision, which bodes well for the constitutional and moral rights of UNC’s students,” said Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE. “The swiftness of this victory emphasizes the profound truth of what Justice Louis Brandeis observed so well: ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant.’”
On December 10, 2002, Jonathan E. Curtis, assistant director for student activities and organizations at UNC, wrote to IVCF, stating that UNC objected to a provision in the IVCF constitution “that Officers must subscribe in writing and without reservation to…Christian doctrine.” Curtis told IVCF to “modify the wording of your charter or I will have no choice but to revoke your University recognition.”
FIRE wrote to Chancellor Moeser, explaining why UNC’s threat was injurious to authentic liberty: “To insist that a religious student organization not discriminate on issues of faith and on matters of voluntary association that flow from its practice of its faith—to insist, in short, that a Christian organization not be Christian—not only deprives the individual members of that organization of their rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, but also imposes upon them an ideology alien to their conscience, in violation of the First Amendment. [IVCF] has as much right to freedom of expression as the conveners of the discussions of the Koran at UNC-Chapel Hill had to their First Amendment rights.” FIRE also cited Supreme Court decisions that explicitly prohibit institutions and agents of the state—such as public universities—from forcing a group to admit an unwanted person or from requiring that a group express allegiance to a particular orthodoxy.
On December 30, 2002, FIRE issued a nationwide press release, drawing attention to the assault on religious liberty, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression at UNC. The next day, Chancellor Moeser restored IVCF’s rights. He issued a statement: “While the University continues to seek to ensure that our facilities and resources are not used in any way that fosters illegal discrimination, we also wish to uphold the principles of freedom of expression….Thus I have asked our staff to allow IVCF to continue to operate as an official recognized student organization.”
Kors noted, “Of course, UNC’s restoration of essential rights to IVCF—which should be the rights of all expressive student groups—adds rather than detracts from the true diversity of its campus.” Sadly, the betrayal of the rights of religious groups has not been limited to UNC’s campus. FIRE has defended religious liberty on many campuses, and it is currently defending the rights of similar groups at Rutgers University and at Harvard University.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, due process, legal equality, the rights of conscience, and religious liberty on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts on behalf of liberty can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
Alan Charles Kors, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
James Moeser, Chancellor, UNC: 919-962-1365; email@example.com