A Campus Crusade Against the Constitution

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Limiting First Amendment rights for Christians undercuts rights for everyone else.

In my lifetime I have been fortunate to see private associations within civil society promote astonishing social and political advancements in civil rights for African-Americans, women and gays. The voices of a like-minded minority, when allowed to associate and present a unified message, can be powerful. Yet we cannot pick and choose which groups have rights. Thus the current controversy surrounding evangelical Christian organizations on college campuses is a test of our commitment to liberal and constitutional ideals.

Earlier this month the California State University System “de-recognized” 23 campus chapters of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). This decision stems from a December 2011 chancellor’s executive order stating that “No campus shall recognize any . . . student organization unless its membership and leadership are open to all currently enrolled students.”

The new policy has insidious implications. Any student may attend IVCF meetings or participate in its activities regardless of belief. But because IVCF asks its leaders to affirm their adherence to evangelical Christian doctrine—a “belief” requirement—California state-university administrators have deemed the group discriminatory. IVCF chapters will no longer have use of certain campus facilities and benefits available to other groups. This policy guts the free association right that was enshrined in the First Amendment precisely to protect minority or unpopular views.

It is obvious why IVCF would want to restrict leadership to true believers. It would be anomalous for a conventional religious group of any kind to open its top leadership to, say, atheists who would want to change the group’s beliefs and activities. The pope has to be Catholic, after all.

Yet this concept of associational rights is apparently foreign to college administrators, especially regarding religious students who hold out-of-favor views about marriage and abortion rights. As contentious as these issues are—especially within the ideological rigidity of the college campus—it is the constitutional right of students to hold unpopular beliefs and collectively espouse them.

The battle over the status of evangelical and other orthodox religious groups was long resolved in favor of the rights of such students to organize and enjoy equal access to colleges’—especially public colleges’—facilities. But this changed in 2010 when a narrowly divided Supreme Court decided Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.

In a confused 5-4 decision, the justices held that a public university did not violate the Christian Legal Society’s First Amendment rights in depriving equal access to campus funds and facilities—as long as the university adopted an “all comers” policy that required all student organizations to accept all students as voting members and leaders, regardless of belief. Martinez was decided in the same muddled spirit as the California state-university policy, with all the same pitfalls.

The trouble with the “all comers” approach: It is fine for some groups—the campus French club’s mission isn’t likely to be compromised by a sudden influx of anti-francophone zealots—but not for others.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Harvey A. Silvergate

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