[youtube_sc url=”http://youtu.be/CXsBCzozR10″ width=”590″ modestbranding=”1″ autohide=”1″ fs=”1″ border=”1″ hd=”1″]
With the U.S. Senate (including our own Senator, Kay Hagan) attempting to limit free-speech protections of the First Amendment, the General Assembly, by contrast, has given student organizations in North Carolina further protection against harassment from university administrators — who might seek to strip them of their official status on the pretext that their doctrines are deemed to be in conflict with a university’s “anti-discrimination” policy.
The Student Organization Rights Bill (SB719), passed in June 2014, allows campus groups to determine their own membership, leadership and mission according to their beliefs — without the fear of losing the privileges that come with official recognition. Governor McCrory signed the bipartisan legislation into law on June 25, 2014.
Many of the groups in question say they ought to be able to limit their membership to just those who adhere to the organization’s beliefs, in thought and in action.
Representative Bert Jones, who supports the legislation, said, “There have been reported efforts where religious student organizations have been threatened with non-recognition, denied access to university facilities, or otherwise harassed because of their religious beliefs. There have been efforts to muzzle their speech, efforts to mandate whom they must accept as their leaders or members, and efforts to abridge their freedom of association. S719 protects student organizations from such improper discrimination by universities and colleges on the basis of their religious beliefs. It stops those who would invoke the power of their office to impose their beliefs, to stifle others, or to otherwise advance an agenda of indoctrination or coercion.”
According to UNC-Chapel Hill policy, when a student organization is granted official recognition, they are entitled to a number of privileges, such as, “access to funding from the Student Activity Fee, which is collected from all enrolled students; priority use, through reservation, of specified University facilities, property, services, and equipment; use of the University’s name in the organization’s title, so long as University sponsorship or endorsement is not implied or stated; and, assistance from the Division of Student Affairs.”
But many student groups around the country have had a tough time gaining and keeping their official status. In California, for example, all the local chapters of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical Christian group with 860 chapters, are being “de-recognized” by the California State University (CSU), which has 23 campuses. The university says InterVarsity’s leadership policy stands in direct conflict with a state-mandated nondiscrimination policy which requires membership and leadership in all official student groups be open to everyone.1
“For an organization to be recognized, they must sign a general nondiscrimination policy,” said Mike Uhlencamp, director of public affairs for the CSU system. “We have engaged with the student group for the better part of a year and informed them they would have to sign a general non-discrimination statement. They have not.”InterVarsity, active since 1947, has been effectively banned on more than 40 college campuses.2
Speaking on behalf of InterVarsity, student Greg Jao said, “We don’t believe we can affirm a policy that forces us to compromise Gospel faith and Christian integrity without undermining our commitment to help students become real world changers, not just world accommodators.”
Right here in our own state, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has frequently been at the center of similar controversies. In 2003, a UNC-Chapel Hill administrator threatened the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship with “derecognition,” which would have resulted in a loss of privileges and funding, because the group required Christian leadership.3
In 2004, Alpha Iota Omega (AIO), a fraternity whose mission is to train Christian leaders, sued UNC-Chapel Hill when it was stripped of its recognition. A university administrator had demanded that the fraternity sign on to the University’s Non-Discrimination Policy or face derecognition. AIO argued in their complaint that the policy was at odds with the fraternity’s requirement that all members be Christian. “For too long, UNC has denied religious groups the basic rights that all student groups should enjoy,” Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s president David French said at the time. “Freedom of association and expression mean little when student groups are forced to include people who disagree with the core beliefs of the organization.” The lawsuit forced a change in policy, but AIO claims it remains at risk.
Across the UNC system, policies to protect Christian student groups are sometimes vague, weak or non-existent, allowing administrators to selectively undercut religious or political mission. Schools lack uniform and explicit policies that serve to protect the freedom of student groups to choose members and leaders using belief-based standards for admittance.4
There exists a persistent conflict between the non-discrimination and diversity policies of UNC and the First Amendment protections that guarantee students’ free speech, freedom of association and free exercise of religion.
Bill sponsor Senator Dan Soucek said in talking with various Christian student organizations, he was convinced that the state needed a law allowing groups to exclude members from leadership positions without risking the loss of university funding.
Representative Jones said when debating SB719 in the legislature that “Students do not leave their constitutional rights of freedom of speech or religious expression at the schoolhouse gate when they enter.”
SB719 uniformly protects the First Amendment rights of student organizations across the University of North Carolina system.
Video courtesy of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
- Religion News Service, “Christian group sanctioned at two dozen college campuses“
- InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, “InterVarsity and IFES“;
- Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Refusal to Allow Christian Clubs to Require Christian Leadership”
- Raleigh News and Observer, “Protecting the First Amendment rights of NC college students“