Victory for Religious Liberty at Wright State University: Christian Group Regains Recognition
June 22, 2009
by Adam Kissel
Today's press release announces another victory for religious liberty and freedom of conscience on campus. Late last week, we learned that Wright State University was finally granting full recognition to a Christian student group that wanted to limit voting membership to others who shared the group's deeply held beliefs. The group, Christian Bible Fellowship (CBF), could not in good faith include in its constitution the nondiscrimination language required by Wright State. After all, as a Christian organization, the group was "discriminating" on the basis of religion, and Wright State was refusing to grant a religious exemption to the group. Despite the group's 30-year history as a registered student organization, Wright State withdrew recognition from CBF in January.
Since its inception ten years ago, FIRE has reminded public universities that the First Amendment protects the right of religious students to form groups based on shared beliefs. Wright State's application of its nondiscrimination requirement actually discriminated against religious student organizations, and the mandatory nondiscrimination language was simply unconstitutional in the absence of a policy for belief-based exemptions. To force a group whose mission is to communicate a particular Christian message to accept voting members or leaders who reject that very message is like requiring the College Democrats to accept College Republicans as members or leaders. Thankfully, at public universities like Wright State, the First Amendment prevents such an absurd outcome, and it is good that Wright State finally has seen the light.
CBF's troubles at Wright State began in late January of this year, when CBF was informed by Wright State's Office of Student Activities that its re-registration was being denied because its constitution required voting members to adhere to religious and behavioral standards, such as requiring that voting members "accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior" and subscribe to the group's articles of faith. (Nonvoting members did not have to meet these standards.)
We wrote to Wright State President David R. Hopkins on February 12, reminding him that the Constitution requires that "if Wright State is to allow expressive organizations to exist on its campus at all, it must allow religious organizations to exist, to define their missions, [and] to select their own members." We also pointed to its victories in similar religious liberty cases at Ohio State University and at Tufts University. Wright State General Counsel Gwen Mattison later phoned me to say that CBF would be recognized for the remainder of the academic year because it was being grandfathered in, despite the university's new requirement of nondiscrimination language, along with a few other groups whose constitutions did not include the new language (but which apparently had been recognized anyway). She also told me that CBF would be required to amend its constitution when applying for re-recognition for next year. Mattison later refused to confirm the details of this conversation.
Later this spring, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff spoke on campus at a conference regarding precisely this issue of student rights. Amazingly, one of the administrators on Greg's panel made a statement positing that students lose their constitutional rights when they pass through the schoolhouse gate—exactly the opposite of what the Supreme Court expressly stated in the landmark 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (discussed in FIRE's Guide to Free Speech on Campus, pp. 44-45):
It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.
We are making a transcript of the recording from the panel—this is a classic you'll want to read for yourself.
Then the Alliance Defense Fund came in with a strong demand letter to Wright State Director of Student Activities Rick Danals on behalf of CBF, requesting that the university allow CBF to maintain its belief-based requirements for voting members. On June 12, Danals granted an exemption and signaled that Wright State would not further impede the group's recognition for 2009–2010. Official notification of recognition followed on June 18. (See ADF's press release here.)
The Campus Bible Fellowship should be commended for standing up for its constitutional rights, and FIRE will be watching Wright State to ensure that the rights of all expressive organizations, religious and secular alike, are protected on campus. You can let Wright State's president, David R. Hopkins, know what you think by contacting him at 937-775-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can reach Danals at 937-775-5543 or email@example.com.