Student group’s lawsuit is about the right of association

What would happen if an animal rights student group was mandated by the University to allow hunters to be a part of the organization, even run for office and vote in their group’s elections? What if a Buddhist student group could be denied official registration unless it allowed a Christian to represent the organization? “Certainly they wouldn’t have to do such a thing,” you might say. “It’s obvious there is a conflict in belief systems in those situations.”

But you would be wrong.

In order for any student group at the University to be registered, it must sign an equal opportunity statement that says anyone may be a part of the organization “without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, disability, public assistance status, veteran status or sexual orientation.” If a group fails to sign the statement, it can be denied its status as a registered student organization. It all sounds fair enough until you really stop and think about it. Does that really mean the College Green Party must allow a Republican to be a part of the group and even hold a position of office? What about an atheist in a Christian group? The answer to all of these questions is “yes.”

This is exactly the issue Maranatha Christian Fellowship has addressed in a federal civil rights action brought against the University Board of Regents on Friday. Maranatha does not want to sign the equal opportunity statement because by doing so it must agree it will not require its officers or members to be Christians and follow basic Christian teachings.

“If MCF refuses to sign the statement, it faces loss of its registered student organization status and the corresponding University benefits such as the right to meet on campus and the right to apply for University funding,” the complaint reads. “If MCF does sign, it faces loss of its First Amendment freedoms – an unconstitutional set of choices imposed by the University.”

Every student organization possesses a constitution and may possess a statement describing the basic beliefs and values of the group. However, as the equal opportunity statement says, “Submitting this (equal opportunity) form supercedes any statement on your official student group constitution.” In the case of Maranatha, submitting the form would supercede the basic Christian statements of faith that govern the group. This is not simply an issue of religion; the same reasoning can be applied to any student organization whose overlying message could be thwarted.

“To require the campus ski club to accept people of all races does not change the group’s message or reason for existence,” said Jordan Lorence, Maranatha’s attorney. “But to force a Christian fellowship to accept non-Christians as leaders certainly does change the message of the group.”

The U.S. Constitution protects a student group’s right of association, that is, for individuals to come together to promote a common viewpoint. That does not mean a group can prohibit others from participating in events or meetings of a student organization, but it does mean if someone wants to join a group as a member or serve as an officer, that group can require that he or she agree with its statement of beliefs.

The threat is real. Officials at Tufts University and Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, ordered Christian groups off campus for doing the very same thing Maranatha is doing (both instances involved InterVarsity Christian Fellowship). Does that sound like equal opportunity to you?

Maranatha representatives say they brought this lawsuit before discussing the issue with the University because they had no idea when the University could suddenly strike and send them packing, much like what happened at Tufts and Rutgers. Maranatha is willing to settle the case if the University makes significant changes to the policy. Lorence said, however, that in the past, attorneys have told University officials about the policy’s constitutional defects, but the University kept the policy.

Maranatha is fighting for the rights of other groups who are affected by this policy but have no ability to challenge the issue in court. If the University is open to changing the policy, Maranatha is happy to talk with officials. However, if the University continues to defend their oppressive, unconstitutional policy, Lorence said Maranatha is willing to take the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Audra Harpel is a journalism student and vice president of Maranatha Christian Fellowship, which has been a registered student organization at the University for more than 20 years. Contact Maranatha at [email protected]