Universities and colleges around the country are reassessing the extent of freedom that faith-based student groups should be accorded on campuses. Recently, several dozen educational institutions have withdrawn recognition of student religious organizations that only allow members of their respective faiths to hold leadership positions.
At Tufts University, Vanderbilt University, Bowdoin College and an increasing number of other schools, requiring leaders in a religious organization to maintain certain beliefs and values can be construed as “discrimination.” For example, if a Christian fellowship does not allow anyone, including atheists and homosexuals, to be the leaders of their Bible study groups, they will be unrecognized by the administration — resulting in loss of access and use of university facilities, loss of eligibility to advertise events on campus and link to the university website as well as being banned from other university resources, information and training.
In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled it was lawful for a public school — Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco — to deny recognition to a student group that required its members to forswear “a sexually immoral lifestyle,” thereby excluding gay members. Since this ruling, not only public but private universities alike have been extra watchful of religious groups’ policies.
Now universities have taken restrictions to a new level. While most on-campus faith groups allow students of any religious background, lifestyle or political leaning to attend and participate in meetings, many also require that leaders meet certain qualifications based on belief and practices. Recently, certain universities deem even these policies as discriminatory and have been bringing down the ax.
Based on such a case, the California State University system, which includes 23 campuses and is the largest university system in the nation, rescinded recognition of InterVarsity, a popular Christian student group. Tufts, Rollins College in Florida and the University of New York at Buffalo have also made the decision to cut InterVarsity and other groups whose leadership policies violate “anti-discrimination” standards.
The New York Times reported: “The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.”
Some universities like Ohio State University, the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota have made exceptions to discrimination policies for religious groups. A rewriting of The Ohio State University’s policy states, “A student organization formed to foster or affirm the sincerely held religious beliefs of its members may adopt eligibility criteria for its Student Officers that are consistent with those beliefs.” This is the right solution.
Hateful language, intolerance or bigotry is never acceptable, and in all differences of opinion, respect and deference should be applied. However, qualification requirements for student group leaders should be allowed. Similar to a campus a cappella group that might demand its leaders as well as members be able to sing, a Christian group should be able to demand that its leaders are actually Christian.
While most universities claim to “embrace diversity,” it appears these schools are more interested in enforcing “diversity on their own terms.” Forcing religious groups to conform to secular standards seems to be a blatant squashing of diversity of opinion, not to mention restricting of student rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.
In a world in which traditional values are being increasingly challenged and mocked, those who wish to preserve their beliefs need a safe place where they can openly express their faith and be strengthened by those with similar ideals. But with current issues dealing with homosexuality and abortion, among other things, the presence of traditional faith-based groups is becoming increasingly uncomfortable and inconvenient for liberal universities.
These faith-based groups are not imposing their beliefs on anyone, and it is a person’s choice whether to come and participate in their activities. Students who have different beliefs and opinions than certain religious groups on campus can find another group or start their own.
Attendance and membership should be open to all, but the basic tenets of a group’s existence are at risk to be altered if people with differing opinions are allowed to come in and assume leadership. The authentic character and values of these groups must be protected.