I must admit that I didn’t know this was happening. Colleges, private as well as public, are withdrawing recognition as official campus student groups from religious groups, often evangelical, that “discriminate.” The key Supreme Court case that has “emboldened” campus authorities is a 2010 case (specifically Christian Legal Society v. Martinez: slip opinion [.pdf]; Scotusblog coverage) that held it was permissible—no violation of the First Amendment—for public universities to withdraw such status from a group that excluded gays and lesbians. Leave aside for the moment the foolishness of a tendency, however common, to confuse what’s constitutionally permissible with what’s a good idea. It’s important to stress that that the decision at Bowdoin College discussed in this article, apparently typical of many other recent decisions, is not about anti-LGBT discrimination.
The Christian Fellowship group at Bowdoin college isn’t being stripped of its status for excluding gays. In fact, it avows even-handedness on that subject—it tacitly expects that “unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex” (emphasis added—and don’t laugh: in my college experience, straight Christian Fellowship couples were indeed either celibate or pretending to be, in effect “closeted”).* Rather, the group is in trouble because it’s insisting that the leaders of an evangelical Christian group affirm a belief in the basic tenets of Christianity. While Christian Fellowship’s membership and meetings are open to people of all faiths, unbelievers, and those who don’t know what they believe, its leaders are expected to be, astonishingly, Christians. And this the campus administration won’t allow.
This strikes me as both uncommonly silly and a grave distortion of the idea of discrimination. It’s not discrimination to say that leaders of a group devoted to believing X should be expected to believe X. That’s not “exclusivity” (as one Cal State lawyer labels it in the article); it’s freedom of association. If campuses, in the name of inclusion, equality, or nondiscrimination are going to withdraw their imprimatur from groups organized on the basis of belief—religious, political, or what have you—they will not be educating students in “diversity” but unfitting them from life in a truly diverse society. Such a society contains, both in theory and very much in practice, not an enforced and artificial porousness and indifference but a rich variety of groups that stand for different things and have to learn how to coexist with other groups that are not going to stop believing them.
Surely non-evangelicals, including atheists like me, have enough groups we can belong to at contemporary, liberal universities without having to infiltrate the leadership of Christian Fellowship. And the case grows even clearer if we flip the case around. Assume a conservative, possibly Southern or Midwestern, university where evangelicals predominate and atheists are the unpopular minority. Don”t we want the Student Secular Alliance to be able to preserve its identity, to safeguard the leadership responsible for that identity, against the possibility that religious students might try to take it over or water down its stance?
Towards the end, the linked article mentions that at Vanderbilt, where I once taught, one of the Christian groups whose official status was withdrawn for such considerations, now barred from meeting in campus meeting spaces, has been invited to hold meetings at—Hillel. (Presumably the Christians in question are pretty far from constituting a hate group.) I take this to be a welcome sign that members of a formerly unpopular, minority religious group recognize the dangers of relying on higher authorities, whether campus or governmental, to define “proper” religions as those whose membership or doctrines are universal enough for their taste. (I say “whether campus or governmental” to stress the common social and cultural implications of any authority seeking to discredit the mere existence of communities of faith or principle. Constitutionally, the status of the authority of course matters greatly. Vanderbilt may place this restriction on Christian groups. It just shouldn’t.)
Freedom of association has its limits. I’m no Andrew Sullivan; I think it’s fine to prohibit “private” groups that server economic functions from discriminating on the basis of race. But at the other extreme, it would be ridiculous to claim that the principle of nondiscrimination requires the Catholic Church to ordain non-Catholics as priests. The Christian Fellowship case is much closer to the latter instance than to the former. Bowdoin, Cal State and colleges adopting similar policies should reconsider and retreat.
*What if an evangelical or Catholic student group expelled gay, but not straight, leaders for sexual activity—as one at Vandy allegedly did? Then I guess I would have no objection to withdrawing its charter on the basis of antigay discrimination—but not on the basis of discrimination in belief. In such a case, the group would in any case be traducing its own professed beliefs by having tolerated straight fornicators in its leadership. Groups that profess traditional Christian sexual ethics, across the board, may legitimately be held to them.