Commentaries
Petty UNC-CH officials rebuffed in attempt to de-recognize Christian group

Leaders attempted to close InterVarsity

By Jon Sanders

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January 10, 2003

The laurels were still fresh from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's defense of academic freedom and religious pluralism in its requirement that incoming freshmen read portions of the Koran. Nevertheless, UNC-CH found itself facing a lawsuit threat from a Christian student organization, which said the school had threatened to revoke its official recognition on campus.

The organization, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (three chapters on campus), received a letter dated Dec. 10 from Jonathan E. Curtis, UNC-CH's assistant director for student activities and organizations, which said the InterVarsity charter broke the university's nondiscrimination clause. Curtis wrote that the InterVarsity must "modify the wording of your charter or I will have no choice but to revoke your University recognition."

The offending portion of InterVarsity's charter was that the Christian student group required its officers to "submit in writing and without reservation to ... Christian doctrine." This is counter to the nondiscrimination clause, which requires student organizations to be open "to full membership and participation ... without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, disability, age, veteran status, sexual orientation, or gender."

Several other student organizations, including several more Christian student groups, received similar letters from Curtis. Most chose to comply with the order from the university, but InterVarsity chose to fight it. Nationwide InterVarsity chapters have faced several similar challenges from universities -- 20 in just the past three years.

In fact, at present an InterVarsity chapter at Rutgers University has been banned from using campus facilities or receiving university funding because of its "discriminatory" practice of selecting only Christian leaders. That chapter filed suit against Rutgers Dec. 30, with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund, a public-interest law organization in Phoenix, Ariz., and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit educational foundation in Philadelphia.

With FIRE's help, InterVarsity threatened to sue UNC-CH if (according to a FIRE press release) "it does not rapidly take corrective action." FIRE chief executive officer Thor Halvorssen sent UNC-CH Chancellor James Moeser a letter Dec. 27 explaining the constitutional rights that were imperiled by UNC-CH's threat to revoke InterVarsity's official status on the stated basis.

"Explaining why even men of good intentions should not possess the awesome power to compel belief and to compel practice that expresses belief, Justice Jackson noted that nothing would rend society more than 'finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing,'" Halvorssen wrote. "Justice Jackson concluded that 'if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what will be orthodox, in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.'"

Halvorssen continued. "The officials of UNC-Chapel Hill are indeed such officials, and the voice of Justice Jackson for the majority is indeed the voice of American liberty and of binding constitutional jurisprudence."

InterVarsity did in fact receive corrective action rapidly from the university. On Dec. 31 Moeser issued a statement pledging to allow the group to continue as an officially recognized student group.

"This is not a simple matter," Moeser said. "While the university continues to seek to ensure that our facilities and resources are not used in any way that fosters illegal discrimination, we also wish to uphold the principles of freedom of expressions."

Moeser said the law "requires that charters of officially recognized student groups at public universities not exclude persons from membership and full participation based on race, gender or religious belief" and that in "work[ing] to comply with that law [UNC-CH] asked all recognized student groups to make sure their charters did just that."

Moeser concluded, "On balance, given that general membership in IVCF is open to all students, I believe that in this matter, preserving freedom of expression is the more crucial consideration. Thus I have asked our staff to allow IVCF to continue to operate as an officially recognized student organization."

FIRE President Alan Charles Kors said that Moeser's decision was the right one legally and also the right one to further the interests of diversity. "Of course, UNC's restoration of essential rights to IVCF -- which should be the rights of all expressive student groups -- adds rather than detracts from the true diversity of its campus," Kors said.

 


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