Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Another Student Religious Group in Trouble

Expect to see more and more student religious groups excluded from student-organization status at public and private universities, partly as fallout from the Supreme Court's poor decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. The latest case is at the (public) University of Buffalo, where the chapter of the evangelical Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) has been suspended for requiring officers to sign a "faith-based agreement" subscribing to certain beliefs. There is disagreement whether the precipitating event, the resignation of IVCF's student treasurer under some pressure from other officers, happened because he was gay or because he no longer subscribed to the statement of biblical inerrancy (in particular the passages on homosexuality). But it doesn't matter, according to a lawyer for the university's Student Association (quoted in the same student-newspaper story):

"SA clubs – even religiously focused clubs – may not deny membership or participation on the basis of a student not professing a belief in a particular faith advocated by that club, and may not require students to sign a statement of commitment to pray and participate in a local church," Korman's letter reads.

As an academic lawyer, I'm supposed to be able to see both sides of disputes. But I confess I remain unable to comprehend the argument that a "religiously focused club" (or any club) should be unable to require that officers "profess [the] belief[s]" the club advocates.

The facts reported so far provide an interesting window into features of these cases. The IVCF's suspension has already caused it to miss one meeting--suggesting it may have trouble meeting on campus without student-group status--and (again according to the lawyer) "could result in the Senate mandating that IVCF abolish the policy, imposing financial sanctions upon IVCF, suspending IVCF further, derecognizing IVCF altogether, or some combination of the above."

Then, from an earlier story, there is the intolerance by other students in the name of tolerance:

"Intervarsity Christian Fellowship was given a budget of $6,000 this year," [one named student] said in an email. "Divide that by 20,000 undergrads. I will not tolerate discrimination. I feel like asking for my 30 cents back. I have talked to several people over the past few weeks and have discovered that some students, my friends, have felt personally targeted by [IVCF]. If someone has felt personally threatened by any entity on this campus, I would encourage them to call the University Police to report the incident."

What the "personal targeting" was, I don't know. But it would hardly surprise me if simple evangelistic witnessing by IVCF members were blown up into "threats."

Finally, there's this howler published in the newspaper's first story:

Because UB is a public school, the IVCF's "basis of faith" may be illegal as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Christian Legal Society v. Martinez decision, which established that a student cannot be barred from participating in a club because of his status or beliefs.

Martinez did not prohibit clubs from barring students because of their beliefs; it only said that a university could prohibit clubs from doing so if it wished. And it said this only in the context of a policy that applied to any belief espoused by any club, not a policy (as Buffalo's seems to be) that makes a religious group's defining belief--religion--the only kind of belief that cannot be the basis for "discrimination" in selecting officers. Many of us worried that student governments and university officials would run with the Martinez decision far beyond its boundaries. The situations at Buffalo and Vanderbilt suggest, "Yup."


Berg, Thomas | Permalink

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