In their Sept. 9 opinion piece, “Policies change for religious students,” officers of the Maranatha Christian Fellowship student organization wrote that University students are all “free to speak and believe whatever our convictions are.” That statement is true, and we are very proud of that fact.
Not only is freedom of expression and belief protected by the First Amendment, it is integral to the academic freedom and spirit of open discovery we seek to foster as one of the United States’ great universities.
The issue in the Maranatha lawsuit was not whether University students may freely hold and speak their views, but the extent to which the University’s nondiscrimination policy may affect the control and leadership of student religious organizations on campus. As part of a nation governed by the rule of law, we must follow the law even when we disagree with the outcome. In our legal settlement with the Maranatha group, the University clarified its student organization policy to read: “Religious student organizations may require their voting members and officers to adhere to the organization’s statement of faith and its rules of conduct.”
The University did not alter its policy that all student organizations must continue to sign the University’s equal opportunity form, which guarantees equal access to programs, facilities and employment. The new language was intended only to clarify that a religious student group could maintain its identity by requiring its voting membership and officers to adhere to its particular faith principles, consistent with the First Amendment.
Why did the University add that sentence to its policy? We did so because it was consistent with the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Recent court decisions – especially the Supreme Court’s decision involving the Boy Scouts of America – tend to favor a private group’s First Amendment right to free association and expression over state laws on nondiscrimination. In addition, the Court has indicated that rights related to religious freedom and association hold a preferred place in our constitutional hierarchy. In sum, the University concluded that the rule of law required the change.
Some might see this as a retreat from our protection of individual rights. It is not. Nor is the University’s agreement an endorsement of unlawful discrimination based on protected characteristics such as religious belief or sexual orientation.
No single student group – neither Maranatha nor any other student group – speaks or acts for the University. Student religious, political, cultural and social organizations are private organizations, expressing their own private views, not the University’s. It is a fundamental feature of our constitutional framework that private organizations and individuals may express themselves in ways that government neither supports nor condones.
The Board of Regents policy for many years has expressed the University’s own practice of equal treatment without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, disability, public assistance status, veteran status or sexual orientation. The University applies this principle uniformly in its own programs. In fact, the University successfully defended our mandatory Student Services Fees against a challenge by students who did not want the University to use their money to support the Queer Student Cultural Center, the University Young Women or other student groups they found objectionable. The University also concretely demonstrates its commitment to equality and diversity through numerous programs, including those offered by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Programs Office. There can be no doubt where the University itself stands on these issues.
Of course, there are individuals and student groups on campus whose beliefs or practices might offend others who hold different views. As a public university, we are a community of ideas – often very different ideas – on matters of
fundamental importance. Especially when those differences seem to divide us most, we must make every effort to engage one another with civility and mutual respect. Our goal is to make our campuses welcoming and inclusive places to learn, study, work, live and interact with others.
E. Thomas Sullivan is the senior vice president and provost for Academic Affairs and a Law School professor. Robert J. Jones is the senior vice president for system administration. Please send comments to [email protected]