In Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," a judge tells the henpecked Mr. Bumble the law assumes that his wife is under his control. "If the law supposes that," he replied, "the law is a(n) ass — a(n) idiot."Mr. Bumble's retort popularized the "law is an ass" phrase, which still is widely used whenever a law defies common sense.
It's hard to find a better example than a rule from the California State University system. Starting last summer, it requires "open membership" for on-campus student groups. Atheists must admit born-again Christians as members and leaders. Democrats must accept Republicans. At one point, honor societies had to accept D students, but even CSU cobbled together an exception for that one.
"Why can't a student LGBT club insist its leaders believe in same-sex marriage?" asked Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield. "Real tolerance allows differing groups to hold diverse points of view." Grove introduced a bill Friday allowing groups at public colleges and universities to have belief-based requirements for membership and leadership.
It's not just conservatives who see CSU's edict as political correctness run amok. After the university "derecognized" an evangelical group that would not amend its bylaws, Kevin Drum of lefty Mother Jones argued it was "pretty extreme" to force Christian groups to "allow nonbelievers to lead Bible studies and prayer services." Indeed.
Drum touched on an issue that jumped to mind, as I recall the silly things I did as a member of campus groups in the 1980s: "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 as president."
Cal State's justification seems equally halfwitted. "The rationale was to remain compliant with California state law," explained a spokesperson in the chancellor's office. The Supreme Court upheld the "all-comers" policy and the law applies to all publicly funded colleges, and not just CSU, she said.
Despite the implication, California's law does not require this policy. A spokesman for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship told me his group hasn't faced the same issues at University of California or most California community colleges. Cal State is implying it has little choice but to force open campus groups to comply with California's anti-discrimination laws, but the court held only that CSU's all-comers policy is legal, not that it's required.
Although students who run for leadership roles "cannot be required to sign a Statement of Faith, nothing in CSU's policy prohibits members or others from asking the candidate about their faith or beliefs," according to the chancellor's office. Thank goodness for small wonders. Students in, say, the Jewish group are still allowed to talk about Judaism.
"It's born out of a well-intended desire to weed out discrimination," said Joseph Cohn, of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "You don't want the chess club telling students they can't be members of the chess club because of the color of their skin. But if a Buddhist campus group wants to exclude someone who is an advocate for fighting, that's not invidious discrimination because they can't continue to be the campus Buddhists if they can't decide for themselves that people should agree with their perspective."
Critics wonder whether these kinds of rules are so well intended. Some worry they are a backdoor attempt to deny conservative religious groups campus resources — or force them to change their views about homosexuality. CSU insists Christian groups are welcome on campus. They are, but only if they accept a policy that might conflict with their faith.
The university is promoting "diversity within groups rather than diversity of groups," argued Nate Honeycutt, a San Diego State University graduate student and spokesman for CSU Student Organizations for Free Association. Many members of campus groups don't know the rule or think it won't affect them, he added. Some groups have amended their bylaws but don't follow the rule in practice. Mostly, Latino kids don't have much interest joining the Polish-American Club and few Libertarians want to become president of the college Marxists.
But what does it say about a rule that works only to the degree that people ignore it? It says such a rule is an ass.