Amy Choate-Nielsen: Religion on campus: Status of religious student groups is challenged by court ruling

Published: Friday, July 13 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Justice Samuel Alito agreed with the Christian group and called the ruling "a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups." He worried about the potential long-term impacts of the landmark ruling.

"I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that today's decision is a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country," Alito said in his written dissent to the decision. "I can only hope that this decision will turn out to be an aberration."

Since the decision, however, Christian clubs have been challenged at other universities — such as Vanderbilt and Buffalo — based on the same rationale. The University of North Carolina toyed with adopting an all-comers policy but decided against the move in May. The University of Florida and Ohio State University include provisions in their policies that carve out exemptions for religious organizations, but some students at Ohio State objected to the exemptions, mounting an unsuccessful challenge to the policy in January 2011. The students' concerns about religious exemptions are ongoing.

For watchdogs like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the developments in all-comers policies are moving away from the ideals of freedom and plurality that should be encouraged on college campuses, says Robert Shibley, FIRE's senior vice president.

"To some extent, I think universities have been looking for an excuse to crack down on religious groups and these beliefs that they see as being very exclusive and discriminatory," Shibley said from his office in Pennsylvania. "I think this will result in a more strained interpretation of religious liberty that I think will ultimately be destructive for our country."

Challenging discrimination

Back at the Vanderbilt town hall meeting last January, McCarty pleaded with students to understand the school's vision.

"We believe in inspired leadership," McCarty said. "And sometimes, you will be surprised by someone who doesn't quite fit the phenotype … and I want that person to have the chance to earn your vote. We want you to be open to that rare individual. … Give them a chance."

The trouble is, as several students pointed out in the meeting, that some of the religious clubs at Vanderbilt are part of national organizations whose policies are non-negotiable. To be recognized by the national group, the local chapters must adopt the same charters and rules as the national organization, and there are perks that come with being part of a national network.

The Catholic Campus Ministry Association, for example, provides retreats, jobs and networking opportunities for students. InterVarsity has events almost every night for students to participate in, from Bible study to book discussions, community meals and forums to discuss "life's hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ in the world," according to the group's site.

The Christian Legal Society provides students pursuing a law degree fellowships and networking opportunities that can be valuable to developing a career path. The group runs a job bank, provides attorney referrals, hosts Bible studies and provides volunteer opportunities at legal aid clinics. But the society asks its members to renounce "unbiblical behaviors," such as sex outside of a heterosexual marriage, in order to qualify their membership.

Subsequently, the group's recognized status on college campuses with non-discrimination policies, such as at UC Hasting's College of Law, has sometimes fallen into jeopardy when openly gay individuals are denied membership, and there are perks for being recognized by a university, too.

In many cases, groups must be officially recognized by their universities in order to use the universities' resources, such as university buildings, recruiting fairs and e-mail lists. Some schools only allow recognized groups to post information on campus kiosks or bulletin boards. Only recognized groups can receive university money for travel or operating expenses.

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