Religion on campus need not be an oxymoron

, Nicole Tigno, Leave a comment

Many college students and even more university administrators do not realize that the former not only have the constitutional right to worship but can do so on campus, surveys show.

This lack of knowledge of such basic constitutional liberties has become so pervasive that religious colleges might resist giving recognition to religious groups, even when school and students profess the same creed. Thus, as reporter Christina Holder noted in a profile of her alma mater, Meredith College, “students who considered Christian faith important fought the administration to make Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical organization, an official college club and to allow meetings on campus.” Meredith College’s own mission statement proclaims its Christian heritage.

According to recent surveys conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, only 30% of students across the country know their religious rights on campus. In light of this trend, it is timely that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has released FIRE’s Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus. The book aims to give a better understanding of the threats to freedom and legal equality on campuses and the moral and legal means by which to combat those threats.

In the book, author David French, a graduate of Harvard Law School with extensive experience in representing religious individuals in court, delves into the foundations of freedom of religion in the First Amendment by discussing its two clauses: the establishment clause, by which government shows neutrality towards all religions; and the free exercise clause, by which government cannot interfere with the practice of religion.

However, the more common cases regarding religious liberty are those that deal with the free exercise clause, since the Constitution, while protecting individuals from government interference, as a rule does not protect individual freedoms from interference by private organizations. Hence, freed from Constitutional restraint, some private schools are becoming centers of censorship and repression on behalf of campus orthodoxies. Conversely, the extent of curtailment of freedom an institution may assert over its students’ religious activities is also determined by the direct federal funding the school receives. French discusses the varied scenarios of censorship extensively in FIRE’s Guide.

Cases that often arise are those having to do with a school labeling a religious campus group “discriminatory” for voicing its religious beliefs or, alternately, for denying membership to students whose beliefs differ from those held by the group. “In response to discrimination charges, do not allow yourself or your religious group to be branded as ‘intolerant’ or ‘discriminatory’. The issue is not whether this or that group should be protected from religious intolerance. The issue is whether we preserve or extinguish religious liberty and pluralism,” writes French.

Among the many points of interest in French’s book are the legal concepts of religion encompassing both theistic and nontheistic beliefs. Hence, for nontheists, a sincere and meaningful belief, which occupies a place parallel to that filled by God, is a legitimate religion under the law.

Another eye-opener is the ability to assert religious liberty claims even if one’s views differ from those of his or her church or religion. “It is not within the judicial function and judicial competence to inquire whether a petitioner or his fellow worker more correctly perceived the commands of their common faith,” reads one Supreme Court decision.

Readers are also educated in such legal terms as “fraudulent inducements” and “promissory estoppels,” which, apply to situations in which colleges promise religious tolerance and diversity in brochures but later renege on those promises. “It [the university] may not promise religious liberty and then put someone on trial for exercising it,” writes French.

Despite its brevity, FIRE’s Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus is packed not only with legal discussions but also with concrete cases that illustrate how the reader can assert or defend his religious rights when at odds with campus authorities. French insists that it is no good to “keep quiet” and paints a picture of the struggle for campus religious liberty just beginning after years of acquiescence. Indeed, there is no doubt that if religious liberty is to continue to prevail in America, it is necessary that religious rights be asserted on campuses, the seedbed of American society.

French sums it up quite nicely: “Today’s college campus is tomorrow’s public, political, educational and civic culture.”

Nicole Tigno is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D. C.