The InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship (IVMECF), a Christian Group at Rutgers University, has been banned from using campus facilities and stripped of university funding because it selected its leadership on the basis of religious belief. In an identical situation, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) has threatened similar punishment for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF)—as well as for other Christian organizations at UNC—because it also used religion as a criterion in the selection of its leadership. Both groups open their membership to all faiths and individuals, but they reserve the right to select leadership on the basis of agreement with their religious mission.
FIRE has begun a campaign to restore both student groups to their most fundamental constitutional and moral rights on campus. With the support of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a public interest law organization based in Phoenix, Arizona, FIRE Legal Network attorney David A. French has filed a lawsuit against Rutgers for violating the First Amendment rights of the IVMECF students. A similar lawsuit may follow against UNC if it does not rapidly take corrective action.
“For years now, American universities have engaged in a ferocious assault on the American principles and basic human rights of freedom of conscience, religious liberty, and the First Amendment. The very idea of American pluralism depends on voluntary associations based upon chosen religious and secular goals. Universities want to ban religious groups because their views are incompatible with university orthodoxy,” said Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE. “How could a religious student group possibly fulfill its religious mission if it is prevented from selecting its religious leadership on the basis of religion? These universities— public institutions bound by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights to protect both the free exercise of religion and legal equality—seem to think they have the power to demand allegiance to the values and beliefs of current academic administrators. It is an intolerant and intolerable outrage.”
Double Standard against Christians at UNC-Chapel Hill
On December 10, 2002, Jonathan E. Curtis, Assistant Director for Student Activities and Organizations at UNC, wrote to the IVCF student leader stating that UNC had reviewed the group’s constitution and objected to a provision “that Officers must subscribe in writing and without reservation to…Christian doctrine.” Curtis then instructed her to “modify the wording of your charter or I will have no choice but to revoke your University recognition.” The student was told that her group must comply by January 31, 2003. Curtis issued a similar edict to at least two other Christian organizations at UNC. “In short,” Kors noted, “it is prohibited at this public university for a Christian organization to be Christian.”
Federal Court: InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship v. Rutgers
On December 30, 2002, in the United States Federal District Court of New Jersey, IVMECF became the plaintiff in an action against Rutgers. The suit charges the university with violations of IVMECF’s constitutional rights to freedom of expression, the free exercise of religion, due process, equal protection, and freedom of association. Costs for the litigation are being underwritten by Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund.
In September 2002, Director of Student Involvement Lawanda D. Irving officially “derecognized” IVMECF, denying it the right to exist at Rutgers. According to the complaint filed earlier today by IVMECF in Federal District Court, Irving ruled that requiring a group’s leaders to agree with the group’s beliefs constituted impermissible discrimination. The religious association, as part of its leadership selection process, utilizes the religious statement around which it has organized, the “Basis of Faith.” “Only those persons committed to the Basis of Faith and the Purpose of this organization,” its rules declare, “are eligible for leadership positions,” and “student leaders must seek to adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives.” The organization has flourished on the campus for many years. As a result of Irving’s ruling, the student group now is forbidden to use campus facilities, denied access to student fee funding, and even prohibited from raising funds on its own.
FIRE has begun a campaign of public awareness in the hope that both Rutgers and UNC will recognize their appalling abuses of power and restore individual rights to their campuses. FIRE wrote to both UNC Chancellor James Moeser and Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick to explain that their decisions are injurious to authentic liberty.
FIRE explained that the Supreme Court, in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), explicitly prohibited institutions and agents of the state—such as public universities—from requiring allegiance to a particular orthodoxy. FIRE cited, in particular, Justice Robert Jackson’s stirring words in that decision: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what will be orthodox, in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Kors noted, “That is the voice of liberty and of a free people.”
FIRE also reminded Chancellor Moeser and President McCormick of the Supreme Court’s decision in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2002), in which the Court ruled that “forced inclusion of an unwanted person infringes the group’s freedom of expressive association if the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints.”
“Everyone on campus would immediately see the absurdity of such a requirement if an evangelical Christian who believed homosexuality to be a sin tried to become president of a university’s ‘Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Alliance,’” said Kors. “The administration would have led candlelight vigils on behalf of diversity and free association. At Rutgers and UNC, however, some groups are more equal than others. There is an unspeakable double standard toward believing Christians,” said Kors. “It must end now.”
Freedom of Conscience under Attack on Other College Campuses
In the past, FIRE has defended the rights of students of faith at Ball State University, Williams College, Middlebury College, and Tufts University, when administrations sought to punish voluntary student religious organizations for adopting language and policies that bore witness to their deeply held beliefs. In each of these cases, FIRE restored these students and groups to their legal and moral rights.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonprofit educational foundation. FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, due process, legal equality, the rights of conscience, and religious liberty on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Rutgers University and UNC can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
David A. French, Greenebaum Doll & McDonald (attorney for the plaintiff): 859-288-4603; firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard Jefferson, Alliance Defense Fund: 480-444-0020; email@example.com
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill:
James Moeser, Chancellor: 919-962-1365; firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan E. Curtis, Asst. Dir. for Student Activities and Organizations: 919-962-1461; email@example.com
Richard L. McCormick, President: 732-932-7454; firstname.lastname@example.org
Lawanda D. Irving, Director of Student Involvement: 732-932-6978; email@example.com