Christians face growing pressures on state campusescomment (0)
February 9, 2012
As the debate between nondiscrimination policies and religious freedom continues on college campuses, Christian organizations in Alabama carry on, ever mindful of the changing national landscape.
“We cannot assume that we won’t be under attack, and we must be proactive in protecting our religious liberties,” said John Gibbons, Alabama director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), which has 450 active chapters in high schools and colleges in the state.
Groups like FCA are especially concerned about decisions like a recent one at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where four Christian groups soon could be kicked off campus for violating a policy that prohibits student organizations from holding members or leaders to any standard of belief or behavior.
Officials at Vanderbilt began reviewing the constitutions of all official student groups last year when members of Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi removed one of the group’s leaders after he revealed he was gay and engaged in a sexual relationship. During the review, administrators found 11 groups with constitutions that violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy.
Representatives from the four Christian groups who remain in violation, Christian Legal Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Graduate Christian Fellowship and Beta Upsilon Chi, are negotiating with school officials in hopes of keeping an official on-campus presence. However, they refuse to strike clauses in their constitutions that require leaders to agree to statements of faith or participate in specific activities, like Bible studies — setting up a showdown with administrators who say official groups can no longer restrict their membership.
“In order to be a registered student organization — which means using the Vanderbilt name, having the opportunity to apply for funding from student activity fees and access to university resources — opportunities for membership and leadership must be accessible to all,” said Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs.
When asked whether the school had any other option for the Christian groups as an alternative to revoking their official status, Fortune would only say that the administrators were still discussing that issue.
But Jim Lundgren, director of collegiate ministries for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, said they are preparing for the likelihood of becoming “third-class citizens” at Vanderbilt: “We all see the handwriting on the wall.”
InterVarsity tried working with the administration to resolve their differences, but when efforts at private negotiations failed, the group appealed to alumni and friends of the school’s board of trustees. A similar strategy of public pressure worked well for InterVarsity at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. School administrators reversed their decision to bar InterVarsity from campus after alumnae protested. In the Vanderbilt case, 23 congressmen sent a letter to Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos asking him not to discriminate against religious groups.
What’s happening at Vanderbilt is part of a national trend. Last year, only two InterVarsity chapters faced challenges from university administrators over the groups’ right to pick leaders, or remove them, based on their beliefs. This year, 15 chapters have run afoul of school nondiscrimination policies.
Faced with increasing opposition from school administrations, some Christian groups are preparing for what they fear is an inevitable break with the official university system. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, religious organizations could soon be relegated to the fringes of college life.
Two cases, one decided at the high court last year and one that could end up there next year, are redefining discrimination and religious liberty on campus.
In CLS v. Martinez, which involved a chapter of the Christian Legal Society at Hastings Law School in California, the justices upheld the school’s right to adopt an “all-comers” policy that forces student organizations to abandon all membership restrictions.
In ADX v. Reed, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the California State University system, which does not have an “all-comers policy,” could prohibit membership restrictions based only on certain criteria, including religious beliefs. The Alliance Defense Fund, which also argued CLS v. Martinez, plans to ask the high court to consider the California case. Its decision will determine whether religious organizations can maintain their autonomy and their status as official groups.
The Vanderbilt is just one of dozens of cases playing out on campuses all across the country, said David Cortman, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund.
“The university is supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, but it ends up being the storefront of censorship,” he said, noting the CLS v. Martinez decision does not apply to private schools. Judson College, for example, outlines the school’s expectations for the moral conduct of all students in an Honor Code.
Bill Mathews, vice president and general counsel at Judson, said college administrators follow court decisions and legislative efforts with both interest and concern.
Information provided in recruiting materials, on-site visits and Judson’s website make the school’s character and culture clear to potential students, he said. While he does not expect Judson’s values or mission to change, he does have concerns about the future.
“We fear that some pending legislation may well infringe on the Constitutional right of Freedom of Religion for our school, our employees and our students,” Mathews said.
Gibbons of Alabama FCA said the recent rulings “should serve a wakeup call for Christian to stay at the forefront of the battle for our religious freedoms.” (BP, TAB)