Religious Groups at College: Who’s Right?

A year ago, the New York Times ran a story discussing freedom of speech on college campuses. One of the big things the article talked about is that many universities had begun requiring on-campus religious groups to permit students who do not hold those faiths to be officials within these clubs. Most groups, as would be expected, agreed to those changes—all save one: evangelicals. Their argument is that it’s only reasonable that leaders of these religious groups have some background in said religion. Thus, it is permissible to restrict those without such an experience from holding positions of power. In this post, I analyze whether or not such a restriction makes sense with regards to free speech rights.

For the purpose of this post, I treat religious freedom as the right to assemble. This comparison is more useful in interpreting our topic at hand as the ability to join, represent, or be an official within these groups is more closely related to that right than the right to free speech. Furthermore, I look to the University of Chicago’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, commonly known as the Stone Report. Though its usefulness in this case is not immediately obvious, it serves as a guide for my post.

Up front, here is my opinion: the religious groups should not be able to make restrictions based on religion. This is for several reasons. First, allowing a religious test runs counter to our constitutional heritage; second, restrictions open the slippery slope to other restrictions; third, it is a classic example of putting one’s rights over another’s.

My first rationale lies in Article VI of the Constitution. The third clause prohibits religious tests for federal employees or officials. Clearly, this is not the same thing—but what matters is the spirit. The belief that all organs of a larger institution, such as a college, should not restrict people from being officials as a result of their identity, whether that be of a religion or not. Organizations that have religious tests disregard the original intent of the Framers.

The second basis is that allowing groups to prohibit admittance based on religion allows other groups to do the same, but with different traits. We saw this in 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled to protect institutions who withdraw support for organizations that exclude gay students. Nothing stops organizations from extending this upwards—what’s to stop an Asian-focused magazine from prohibiting Latino board members? You get the idea.

Third and most important: we have again a classic example of one group putting their rights above the rights of others. Before I explain why this is so, consider that rights are both relative and inherently shared among people. Our rights depend on each other. My rights end where yours begin, for if they did not and I take your rights, nothing prevents another from taking mine. Applied to this context, the aforementioned hypothetical right necessarily detracts the rights of applicants by requiring that said applicant change their identity to match what is expected by the group. In other terms, the group usurps the necessitate change upon another individual by force. Furthermore, organizations in a college—much like the college themselves—are bound by the academic imperative to include all points of view. The Stone Report is clear on this when it quotes former University of Chicago President Hanna Gray: “education… is meant to make [people] think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.” College organizations, as representatives of the college in an official capacity, are therefore expected to follow these rules.

Even though many clubs—religious or not—might seem to make a fair argument when they want some form of restriction for joining or having an administrative position outside of an application, their arguments are in fact quite myopic in view: each groups believes they fight for their rights, but in reality they fight against them.

—JP Zenger

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