Victory for Religious Liberty at University of Florida, But Freedom of Association Still in Jeopardy

February 4, 2009

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. That’s what happened recently at UF.

On April 25, 2008, UF’s Center for Student Activities and Involvement sent a memo to all student organizations demanding that all student groups include a new, specific non-discrimination statement in their constitutions verbatim in order to stay registered as student organizations:

In compliance with the University of Florida Non-Discrimination Policy (Regulation 6C1-1.006), [Name of organization] will not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations, and veteran status as protected under the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act.

The memo threatened that existing student organizations would lose their status and university benefits if they did not comply by September 5.

This was a violation of the freedom of association of any group whose beliefs conflicted with the policy. Political groups were apparently required to admit anyone whose beliefs conflicted with their own, and similarly for religious groups.

In addition, all student organizations were required to offer "associate" membership to non-students, spouses, faculty, and staff, using this language verbatim: "Membership in this organization is open to enrolled students at the University of Florida. Non-students, spouses, faculty, and staff may be associate members; however, they may not vote or hold office."

The student organization Gator Christian Life (GCL) held numerous discussions with the UF administration over the summer about the non-discrimination policy. Along with five other religious organizations, GCL then wrote a letter to Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin. FIRE fans might remember Ms. Telles-Irvin from another free speech violation in which she was involved in 2007, when she went to battle (and lost) against five other student groups that had advertised a showing of the movie Obsession.

GCL’s letter stated that "We are strongly committed to treating all students with equity and respect while still being faithful to our beliefs." Throughout September 2008, however, according to a timeline provided to FIRE by GCL, Telles-Irvin continued to deny GCL its rights. Telles-Irvin would only permit GCL to exist as a "non-registered group." By October, GCL was deregistered and its room reservations were cancelled.

On December 8, GCL wrote UF’s Board of Trustees in detail, citing FIRE’s religious liberty cases at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Southern Illinois University‘s School of Law, and Pennsylvania State University, among others.

Finally, on January 15, 2009, GCL received a letter from Nancy Chrystal-Green, Director, Center for Student Activities and Involvement at UF, providing the religious liberty to which students are entitled:

[T]he University has modified its nondiscrimination in membership policy as follows:

"Student organizations that wish to register with the Center for Student Activities and Involvement (CSAI) must agree that they will not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations, or veteran status as protected under the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act.

["]A student organization whose primary purpose is religious will not be denied registration as a Registered Student Organization on the ground that it limits membership or leadership positions to students who share the religious beliefs of the organization.  The University has determined that this accommodation of religious belief does not violate its nondiscrimination policy."

Throughout this process, GCL was helped by Liberty Counsel, which announced the victory with a press release. In the press release, Liberty Counsel Founder Mathew Staver put it well:

Forbidding Christian student organizations from taking religion into account regarding its leadership, membership and message violates the First Amendment. It is simply absurd to force a Christian student organization to have an atheist president. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and association. The University’s reversal of its policy was not only prudent; it was required under the law.

Congratulations are due to Liberty Counsel and to Anda Neiconi, GCL President. See also this good article on the travails of the Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi, which had actually filed suit against UF for the same reason that GCL was fighting for its rights.

Unfortunately, this is only part of the resolution required under the law and by common sense. What about letting the campus Democrats prevent members of the Republican Party from being members and leaders, and vice versa? What about student organizations that do not want to be forced to have "associate" members that include non-students? UF is still violating the freedom of association, and its policy must improve once more.

Schools:  University of Florida