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Religious Liberty in Danger on Campus By: Thor L. Halvorssen
TheFIRE.org | Monday, November 24, 2003


One out of every four undergraduates is unable to mention any freedoms protected by the First Amendment, and only thirty percent of them answered that freedom of religion is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Two surveys commissioned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reveal that college and university students are woefully ignorant about freedom of speech and freedom of religion. 

Administrators who govern student life on campus fared no better in the other comprehensive research survey commissioned by FIRE during spring semester 2003.  Only 21 percent of the interviewed administrators named the very first right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights -- freedom of religion -- when asked to name any First Amendment right, and a full 11 percent admitted that they did not know any of the specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. 

"If the American experiment in liberty is to survive, citizens must both keep alive and cherish the free exchange of ideas, values, and convictions.  These survey results are disheartening, but they unfortunately are not surprising," said Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE.  "Through FIRE's experience with aiding thousands of students on campuses across the country, we have learned that freedom of speech and freedom to worship are undergoing a frightening and powerful assault."

The surveys, conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis (CSRA) at the University of Connecticut, asked open-ended and fact-based situational questions of 1,037 students and 306 administrators from hundreds of public and private colleges and universities across the country.  The surveys show that students and administrators lack the most fundamental understanding -- let alone appreciation -- of the free exercise of religion and of the deep importance that devout individuals attach to their faith.  Too many also do not understand the social, moral, and legal provisions that sustain religious freedom in American culture and society.  Often, they are unaware of the concept of rights of conscience, and they fail to comprehend the nature of religious liberty.

Only six percent of administrators and two percent of students correctly named freedom of religion as the freedom that the First Amendment addresses before all others.  Worse yet, only 36 percent of administrators at private institutions and 50 percent at public institutions reported that their administrations took the view that religious individuals should spread their beliefs "by whatever legal means they choose."  Students were similarly intolerant of those who would communicate their religious views: only 32 percent of all students surveyed believe that religious people should use any legal means to spread their beliefs.

Students and administrators were also asked whether, under current U.S. law, a religious student group that believes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender behavior is against Scripture is allowed to exclude those who practice such behavior.  As a consequence of the U.S. Supreme Court case of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), a public university may not use anti-discrimination policies to dictate the leadership or membership of religious groups, but more than 80 percent of administrators were ignorant of the law.  Students were more informed on this issue, with 40 percent drawing the correct legal conclusion. 

Other survey results of pressing interest include:

* 24 percent of administrators believe they have the legal right to prohibit a student religious group from actively trying to convert students to its religion.
* 49 percent of administrators at private universities and 34 percent of administrators at public universities report that students at their institutions must undergo mandatory non-curricular programs, "the goal of which is to lead them to value all sexual preferences and to recognize the relativity of these values compared to the values of their upbringing."

"We hope that this survey will serve as a belated wake-up call to those concerned with religious liberty on campus," said Kors.  "Our colleges and universities continue to deny students rights that are respected in nearly every other venue of our free society.  We need to protect the rights of inward belief and outward expression, and we need to educate students and administrators about the principles of our First Amendment -- principles that reflect the very spirit of liberty.  To this end, FIRE has published a Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus, available at
www.thefireguides.org.  This survey strongly suggests that this academic generation would benefit profoundly from reading FIRE's Guide." 

David A. French, a member of FIRE's Legal Network and author of FIRE's Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus, agreed: "This survey confirms what students of faith have long perceived -- that their fellow students and the administrators either misunderstand or minimize the extent and importance of their First Amendment rights.  It is ironic that administrators who are so eager to encourage 'tolerance' and 'diversity' know so little about the fundamental freedoms that make true diversity and tolerance possible."

Because college and university administrators and students largely fail to understand the nature of religious liberty, it is not surprising that religious students across the nation have endured many impositions of restrictions and double standards that violate their essential freedoms.  FIRE has defended the rights of hundreds of individuals and campus groups in situations where students were denied the free exercise of their religion or found their religious rights threatened.  Such cases have occurred at Ball State University, Penn State University, Purdue University, Rutgers University, Tufts University, Williams College, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as many others.  FIRE maintains a growing archive of campus religious liberty cases at
www.thefire.org/religiousliberty.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, religious liberty, and rights of conscience on our campuses of higher education.  FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty at campuses across America can be seen by visiting
www.thefire.org.  The full results of both surveys as well as FIRE's digest and CSRA's independent analysis of the survey results are available on the FIRE website.  The FIRE surveys were funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.  The margin of error in the student survey is +/- 2.8 percent.  The margin of error in the administrator survey is +/- 5.6 percent.



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