Civil Liberties

Universities Void Freedom of Religious Association in the Name of Tolerance

Could the Squirrel Lover's Club be forced to recognize a club president who hates squirrels?


Campuses want to foster tolerant and inclusive environments, which is why many public universities have decided to restrict the rights of religious students to form their own groups. If that makes no sense to you, keep in mind that college administrators have very curious ideas about what tolerance requires.

At California State University, for instance, students will no longer be able to form groups where membership or leadership is predicated on support for the group's mission. From The New York Times:

At Cal State, the nation's largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders. And at Vanderbilt, more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical but one of them Catholic, have already lost their official standing over the same issue; one Christian group balked after a university official asked the students to cut the words "personal commitment to Jesus Christ" from their list of qualifications for leadership.

At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, says some chapters have even elected non-Jews to student boards.

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.

In theory, this could get rather ridiculous. What's to stop a conservative student activist from joining the College Democrats with the explicit goal of tanking the organization? Could the Squirrel Lover's Club be forced to recognize a club president who hates squirrels?

In practice, religious student organizations are the ones hampered by such a policy. As Kevin Drum of Mother Jones put it:

Apparently this was sparked by a court decision that ruled it was OK for public universities to deny recognition to student groups that exclude gays—including Christian groups. I'm fine with that. But requiring Christian groups to allow non-believers to lead Bible studies and prayer services and so forth? That seems pretty extreme. I have to admit that if I were a member of a campus Christian group, I'd have a hard time believing there were no ulterior motives at work here….

I can easily imagine a bunch of campus halfwits who think it would be the funniest joke in the world to join a religious group en masse and then elect an atheist president. These are 19-year-olds we're dealing with, after all.

Defenders of forced inclusion say that the university can't provide official recognition—and the perks that come with it—to any group that practices any form of discrimination, even practical discrimination against members who don't share the group's interests or beliefs.

While students can still form unofficial groups, doing so cuts them off from facilities, funding (most universities require students to pay activities fees and then distribute the money among official groups), table space at recruitment events, and the right to use the university's name in promotional materials.

The policy might seem like a violation of at least the spirit of the U.S. Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of assembly, though a sharply divided Supreme Court has held that universities may impose such requirements on officially recognized groups. 

Unfortunately, tolerance at the modern American university is not about allowing people to disagree: It is about prohibiting them from doing anything deemed uncivil by the ones in charge.