CHAPEL HILL — Members of a Christian fraternity are one step closer to gaining official recognition from UNC-Chapel Hill after a federal court hearing Wednesday that led to a possible out-of-court settlement.
Federal Judge Frank W. Bullock Jr. set a deadline Feb. 28 for UNC-Chapel Hill and Alpha Iota Omega to reach an agreement on how to change the university’s nondiscrimination policy to include the Christian group. Bullock’s deadline is based on a lawsuit filed Aug. 25 after AIO was denied funding by the school because members refused to sign a nondiscrimination policy. It had wanted to limit membership to Christians.
When the school refused to continue to recognize AIO, group members lost access to student fees, computer server for a group Web site, and meeting space on campus.
Jordan Lorence, of the Alliance Defense Fund and the lead lawyer representing AIO, said Wednesday’s developments were a victory for the students.
“We believe we prevailed [Wednesday] for a very simple reason,” Lorence said in a press release. “It’s hard for any logical person to understand why this fraternity should be forced to accept a policy that undermines its very reason for existence. Like all other student organizations at UNC, Alpha Iota Omega simply wants leaders that have the same purpose and goals.”
Moeser was represented by Assistant Attorney General Joyce Rutledge in the hearing. At one point in the hearing, Rutledge argued that UNC-Chapel Hill only wanted the group to sign the policy, but wouldn’t actually enforce it. Rutledge also argued that AIO did not have standing in the case because, she said, the group could not prove that it was harmed by the school’s decision.
However, Bullock seemed to disagree with the line of reasoning. He said forcing members of AIO to sign the university’s nondiscrimination policy “would send a chilling effect” to the members who did not believe in the policy.
“As they view the policy, the plaintiffs would have to sign a pledge they know they cannot live up to,” Bullock said, according to the Herald-Sun of Durham. “Isn’t that a chilling effect to suggest they sign the pledge in order to have standing?”
Rutledge also suggested in the court of the hearing that the nondiscrimination policy would apply only to the group’s members. She said that the group’s leadership, presumably coming from the membership, would not have to adhere to the policy. Lawrence argued that statement was counter to an affidavit filed by Moeser.
“The university has no interest in being thought or religion policy,” said Rutledge.
While neither side mentioned what may or may not be included in a new nondiscrimination policy or possible settlement, it is believed that the settlement could have an affect on all groups at UNC-Chapel Hill. However, Lawrence said he thinks the students will be treated fairly.
“The judge felt the university was conceding to most of our arguments,” Lorence said. “He refused to dismiss our lawsuit. He also indicated that he would likely be willing to grant our request to stop the university from enforcing its policy on student organizations unless the university signs a consent decree agreeing to change the policy by Feb. 28.”
UNC has not made an official statement regarding the court hearing.
This is not the first case that the Alliance Defense Fund has taken up regarding a nondiscrimination policy on a college campus used against a Christian organization. Last year, the group was victorious in getting Ohio State University to change its nondiscrimination policy. The school threatened to deny recognition to the Christian Legal Society when it learned the group did not allow non-Christians or homosexuals to hold office.
Months after the lawsuit was filed OSU officials agreed to allow groups to restrict membership to those that adhere to the group’s beliefs.