Campus religious groups should be able to “discriminate” based on religion.

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.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

11 thoughts on “Campus religious groups should be able to “discriminate” based on religion.”

  1. And of course the Spartacist League and the NRA should be prevented from discriminating against Gandhians, Mennonites and Quakers to protect their manly creeds from pacifist entryism.

  2. The thing I don't see documented is campus groups that are being overrun by people who don't share the groups' mission. Has it ever been the case that atheists have joined an evangelical group, invested time in group bible study and prayer, participated in fundraising and outreach, earning the respect and admiration of enough group members to be elected to leadership?

    While not a college-based group, I was active on a listserv several years back. Its purpose was to support conservative parents and family member who were unhappy about one or more loved ones being gay. Openly, contentedly gay myself, I wasn't there because I shared the beliefs of the group, but I fully supported the mission to support healing in families. I challenged no ones theology, asked questions occasionally and mostly offered support and hope for reconciliation.

    I was living on the other side of that fence, being rejected by some family members for being gay. In the same way I would have sought out understanding of a foreign-to-me culture of people I cared about, I appreciated learning from folks in the group.

    Under no circumstances would I have been chosen for leadership by the group members. It would have been beyond my reach to gather up a bunch more gay-affirming friends who wanted to participate, hoping to outnumber the original members.

    That's the context in which the non-discrimination policies make sense to me on college campuses. An evangelical campus group for which being anti-gay in whatever fashion was a core tenet wouldn't attract many, if any, gay members. And, those members wouldn't garner the support of the majority to become leaders… the only thing required of the group is that they be allowed on the ballot.

    1. You make an important point. The point of a lot of these student groups is to make people feel comfortable, so that they can deal with challenging surroundings, and of course the hope is that this makes them stronger and better people when they are outside the group. And that sometimes means a need for privacy, a not-letting-in of others. I know it's not strictly on point since this case was — I guess? — about student leadership of groups, but I think they should be allowed to have closed meetings sometimes.

      I remember many, many years ago when being mixed was an issue to people, going to a meeting of African-American students who were talking about it. I was genuinely interested and I meant no harm, and it was relevant to me, but I am pretty sure that I and the other couple of non-black people pretty much totally derailed the discussion. So, no one got what they wanted. I wished I hadn't gone. And, at the time, I wished they had said on the flyer, "group members only." I would have understood. Sure, they might get some heat but that's understandable too. I just think — some of the time — it should be allowed. Otherwise all you're doing is forcing them off campus, and I'm not sure that's better.

    2. My (vague) recollection is that some Gay-Rights activist students may at some point have attempted to join campus Christian groups, in order to make an issue of their exclusion and protest the groups' existence and privileges (use of campus facilities, publications, and funding).

      On the other hand, if I recall correctly, the groups they were messing with weren't merely collectives of like-minded people who happened to share religious convictions that excluded Gay folks from their group – they were seen as devotees and advocates of (religiously inspired) hatred of Gay folks, both as attitude and as policy. And while I'm all in favor of respecting peoples' beliefs and their freedom of association, once they dedicate their association not merely to separatism but actively to the encouragement and spreading of bigotry I'm rather disinclined to accord them any student fees or office space.

    3. Actually, to some degree on midwest campuses the problem runs in the other direction. Fervent evangelical students band together to disrupt other student groups. On my campus, they were infamous for enrolling and disrupting a course on existentialism taught by the philosophy department. They also banded together to dominate the film committee and control the movies that were shown in the Student Union. The thing that hurt most was eliminating what had been a fairly interesting series of art film in favor of three and four year old Hollywood block busters.

  3. Surely there is a backstory here that we are not being told?

    Obviously universities that do this are well aware that they are kicking a hornet's nest. So the explanation that they are doing it because they hate Christianity seems uncommonly unlikely — that's an explanation that may fly on Fox News (or the NYT, which occasionally likes to stray into Fox News territory) but should not be entertained by intelligent people.

    I'm guessing the answer is one of either
    – they have been given legal advice that the law, as currently understood, somehow REQUIRES them to do this, as some sort of more or less unplanned consequence of existing "anti-discrimination" laws and perhaps a new definition of the various forms "anti-discrimination" might take OR
    – there is some history of these Christian organizations strongly abusing their situation, and this is a way to rein that in.

  4. I very much agree with Andrew here.

    If a group is founded on a certain set of beliefs I think it should be able to require that its leaders hold those beliefs. If the beliefs in question are odious then perhaps the university ought not sanction the group's association with the university. But once it does so I see no problem with the leadership qualification.

  5. There is nothing stopping groups from organizing any way they like. But then they need not have official recognition which entails funding and privileged access to facilities. Of course these same rules would require an atheist group to accept religious members as well.

    Maybe the point here is that campus groups ought to be aligned based on activities that can include any person, rather than being aligned on belief systems. There are after all churches. And groups can organize any way they like, provided they don't expect the special subsidy of official recognition.

    1. Well, in some ways I take a dim view of high subsidies for campus groups if that means literal money; part of getting semi-real-world experience is having to raise one's own funds. (Harvard has, or used to have, a policy of very low and disappearing student group subsidies: the Chinese Students Association raised money with dumpling night; the Harvard Perspective sold ads for pizza places.) But I guess I don't regard the mere right to use campus space and post on campus bulletin boards as a campus imprimatur for the content of the group's mission. And I want there to be so many groups, devoted to so many incompatible things, that it couldn't possibly be so regarded. In other words, the campus should be more like a common carrier than like a den mother.

  6. Without seeing the details, I have to wonder exactly what “basic tenets of Christianity” are involved here. The last time I saw one of these cases, the “basic tenets” that a nominally-christian organization was insisting on were ones that I could not have signed onto in good conscience even were I still an episcopalian. And if I were a quaker or a unitarian, no chance. There’s a lot of disagreement among different kinds of christians about everything from transubstantiation to the ten commandments to the divinity of Jesus. So a college or university might be uncomfortable effectively taking sides in a sectarian dispute by giving one group the imprimatur of “Christian” and allowing them to exclude other self-identified christians.

    1. Actually, I'm completely assuming that by basic tenets the Christian Fellowship means something controversial and, perhaps, specifically evangelical. (In the article, one group demands "an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead," and another, "personal commitment to Jesus Christ.") And I think that's FINE, just as I think it would be fine for an Episcopal group to demand subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles and a humanist group to one—or more, or none—of the Humanist Manifestos. (I suppose it would be OK for the campus to make the Christian Fellowship change its campus name, e.g. to "Gospel Fellowship" or such instead of "Christian," but not its mission. But I doubt that was the sticking point.)

      Groups that did too much of that might lose members, as might those that did too little. Finding one's way among the various competing strategies of "church" and "sect" is also part of education in freedom of association. At Harvard there were two left-of-center journals: the Perspective, which was all over the place ideologically, and the Subterranean Review, which was much more hard Left. Both had their own struggles. And there were two lesbian groups: one whose slogan was "no politics, no assumptions," and another, "Women-Oriented Women," that proudly said it had both. Let a thousand voices bloom, and don't pretend that they can all sing the same song in harmony.

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