- A CALIFORNIA VERSION OF THE WEST SIDE STORY
- UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS CLARIFIES POSITION
- FIRST AMENDMENT BATTLE WAGES IN COURT
- GRANT AGREEMENTS BETWEEN FRATERNAL ORGANIZATIONS AND AFFILIATED FOUNDATIONS - THE TEN MOST COMMON MISTAKES
- SPREADING LIABILITY FOR HAZING
- LIABILITY FROM ADVISOR'S FAILURE
Newsletter > March 2003 > "FIRST AMENDMENT BATTLE WAGES IN COURT"
FIRST AMENDMENT BATTLE WAGES IN COURT
First Amendment battle between a religious student group and university officials just began in the United States District Court of New Jersey. On December 30, 2003, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) filed a lawsuit against Rutgers University at New Brunswick on behalf of a Christian student group, the InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship. The federal suit alleges that Rutgers, a public university, revoked the group’s recognition, blocked access to campus facilities and stripped its funding because the group selects its leaders based on their religious beliefs. InterVarsity alleges that the University’s actions violated its local chapter’s First Amendment rights of freedom of association, speech and religion.
Rutgers University requires every undergraduate student to pay a “student fee” which in part provides financial support for University-recognized student groups, including until recently, InterVarsity.
Rutgers has a mandatory nondiscrimination policy, which states that “Membership shall be open to all Rutgers University students and must comply with federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of…religious affiliation. Compliance with these means membership, benefits and the election of officers will not be made on the basis of these factors.” Before a group can be registered, receive funding and utilize campus facilities, each student group must submit a constitution to the University which specifically includes the non-discrimination policy.
InterVarsity alleges that the university revoked the group’s recognition because InterVarsity’s leadership policy, consistent with its constitution, does not comply with the university guidelines on nondiscrimination. InterVarsity allows anyone to become a member of the organization; however, its charter states that only those “committed to the Basis of Faith and the Purpose of this organization are eligible for leadership positions.” The University has stopped funding the group but denies suspending the group or preventing it from using the campus facilities.
According to InterVarsity’s attorney, David A. French, the issue is whether organizations can choose their own leadership. Mr. French stated in the January 7, 2003 Washington Times that there is no New Jersey or federal law which requires the fellowship to allow individuals as leaders who do not subscribe to the fellowship’s basis of faith. InterVarsity argues in its lawsuit that since membership is open to all Rutgers students, the Fellowship deems it necessary “if it is to maintain its distinctly evangelical Christian identity” for leadership to be reserved for those individuals who are committed to their basis of faith. The complaint also alleges that Rutgers’ policy on student groups discriminates on the basis of religious and political viewpoints and imposes unconstitutional conditions on the receipt of state benefits.
InterVarsity has run into similar problems at other schools, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where InterVarsity has been an active student group for over fifty years. Chapel Hill officials, in threatening to de-recognize InterVarsity unless it allowed non–Christian students to serve as officers, stated that the University wanted to ensure that its resources are not used to foster illegal discrimination.
Dr. Mike Adams and Charlton Allen, Esq, wrote in an Internet article entitled “God and Man at Carolina,” “Is it really possible for college administrators to be so uneducated in the basics of civics that they would fail to recognize that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution trumps their school diversity policies?”1 Other student groups on UNC’s Chapel Hill campus also received letters threatening revocation of university recognition. These student groups included Alpha Epilson Pi Fraternity (for limiting its membership to any male student…who believes in God).2 Chapel Hill officials finally decided that InterVarsity could remain an official student organization.
While the lawsuit at Rutgers does not directly include fraternities and sororities, implications of a decision in this suit could have long-lasting effects on first amendment associational rights of many student groups, including Greek organizations.
1http://www.breakpoint.org/breakpoint/channelroot/featuresgroup/onlinefeatures/God+and+Man+at+Carolina.htm, January 13, 2003
2 See Id.