Williams College informed its student groups that the college’s statement of non-discrimination requirements applied to the activities of voluntary student associations. Such a move would have denied the right to freedom of association promised by the college in its publications. In May, the college sent a memo instructing student groups to adopt “non-discrimination” language in their constitutions or lose their ability to exist as campus groups. Importantly, Williams only mentioned the category of sexual orientation—not, for example, the category of religion or race—and justified this imposition by asserting, without any specific citations, that Williams’s actions in this regard were “completely dictated by the Federal Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights guidelines for non-discrimination.”
FIRE corrected Williams College on the law by informing Williams that to insist that a religious student organization not discriminate on issues of faith—and on the voluntary association that flows from the practice of faith—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 free speech clause of the First Amendment. No federal guideline or regulation can trump the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Further, FIRE informed Williams College that if it chose to impose such language of its own volition, as some private institutions have attempted to do in the past, it would be in violation not only of the moral principles that are the foundation of religious freedom and the rights of conscience, but of the explicit contractual obligations that Williams chose to enter into with its students when it guaranteed to them the right to freedom of association in its handbooks.
Within days, the Dean of Students wrote back to FIRE stating that Williams believed in voluntary association and religious freedom, and promising that Williams would not impose its views on its student groups. The Dean informed FIRE that the requirement was no longer in existence.
In what appears to be a growing trend, similar accusations of discrimination have been made against campus religious groups at colleges across the country. Middlebury College has taken steps to punish its religious groups by adopting language and policies aimed at forbidding groups to bear witness to politically incorrect views when choosing their leaders. As a result, an evangelical group has had its funding frozen. Grinnell College also penalized an evangelical group for its views; the group is still “derecognized.” Whitman College followed soon after, defunding and banning evangelical group.