RALEIGH – Once again, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill stands accused of discrimination against a Christian student group.
UNC-CH has derecognized the Alpha Iota Omega Christian fraternity (AIO) because the group sought to limit its membership to Christians. Derecognition means UNC-CH froze AIO’s university account, cut off its web access, and denied the group the ability to reserve space on campus, apply for funding from student fees (AIO raised its own money), or make use of other privileges granted officially recognized student groups. UNC-CH did not even notify AIO when it revoked the group’s official status.
AIO, an officially recognized student group since 1999 whose mission is “to train Christian leaders … by upholding the Bible’s true standard of righteousness,” believed that a nondiscrimination clause UNC-CH required all student groups to sign would interfere with the group’s right to maintain its character and mission. The clause would prohibit AIO from using religious affiliation as a criterion for membership. Not agreeing to the clause, but still seeking a reasonable solution to the problem, the group was derecognized without receiving notification. They learned as they suddenly lost web access and, later, access to their account, with the funds they had raised, with the Student Activities Fund Office.
AIO took their complaint to the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, the same organization that supported other Christian student groups against UNC-CH in 2002 when the university threatened them with what has now been done to AIO.
“It is particularly disappointing that UNC has once again denied basic constitutional rights to its religious organizations,” said FIRE President David French. “Unlike some university administrations, UNC’s leadership — because of its actions less than two years ago — is intimately familiar with the constitutional rights of religious students. UNC lacks any excuse for its shameful actions.”
Moeser responded that in order for a student group to be officially recognized, it must “agree to abide by the [u]niversity’s nondiscrimination policy by allowing membership and participation without regard to age, race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sex, or sexual orientation.” Under this policy, Moeser explained, “Baptist student groups are open to Presbyterian students; Jewish student groups are open to Christian students; the Italian Club is open to Korean students; and the Black Student Movement is open to white students.”
French retorted, “A Christian group has the right to be Christian, a Muslim group has the right to be Muslim, and a Jewish group has the right to be Jewish. It seems absurd that anyone in a free society would have to make this argument, but time and time again FIRE has had to fight for this constitutional right at universities,” French said.
N.C. Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) wrote to Moeser August 13 to urge UNC-CH to rethink its decision against AIO. Arguing that each student group “has the right to determine for itself the membership of its organization,” Moore wrote that “[a] Christian group has every right to extend membership to only other Christians, so to does a group of chess players have every right to limit membership to only those interested in playing chess.” Moore wrote that “saying that a group must welcome members who do not follow the group’s purpose is unconstitutional and is a violation of that group’s right to associate with whom they may please.”
Moeser wrote that “[t]here is sometimes a tension between the First Amendment to the Constitution and the equal protection provisions in the Fourteenth Amendment.” Because the U.S. Supreme Court “has not yet addressed this issue in the context of student groups at public universities,” Moeser wrote, “all public universities must strive to balance constitutional rights and protections,” and UNC-CH believes it has struck the “proper balance.”
Moore argued, however, that the Supreme Court had sufficiently addressed the issue. “In arguing the case of whether or not the Boy Scouts of America can restrict its membership to those who subscribe to its creed, the court affirmed that an organization has the right to determine membership opportunities,” Moore wrote. “I see no difference in the Boy Scouts wanting to organize with like-minded individuals than Alpha Iota Omega wanting to extend membership to other Christian students.”
The Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has opened an investigation into the matter at the request of Rep. Walter B. Jones (R). The OCR is already investigating UNC-CH at Jones’ request, after UNC-CH English instructor Elyse Crystall sent a classwide email accusing a student in her class of “hate speech.” The student had responded to Crystall’s class discussion over “Why do heterosexuals feel threatened by homosexuals?” with an anecdote about a friend who was propositioned by a homosexual and felt, not threatened, but “disgusted.” Crystall wrote that the student, whom she identified by name, was “a white, heterosexual, [C]hristian male” who feels “entitled to make violent, heterosexist comments and not feel marked or threatened or vulnerable.”
Jon Sanders (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a policy analyst for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.This article is reprinted with the permission of the Pope Center (www.popecenter.org.)