Victory at University of North Carolina: Religious Student Group Free to Practice Its Beliefs
October 14, 2011
CHAPEL HILL, N.C., October 14, 2011—The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has cleared a Christian student group of any wrongdoing after it dismissed a student who felt that he could no longer adhere to the group's religious beliefs. Yesterday, Christian a cappella student group Psalm 100 learned that UNC had determined that the group had complied with UNC's nondiscrimination policy, which allows belief-based student groups to make decisions about members and leaders based on those beliefs. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) had intervened to ensure that UNC follow its stated policy.
"While it should not have taken a month and a half of 'investigation' to determine that Psalm 100 had followed UNC's policy, we are glad that the university made the right call," said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. "All religious and political groups at UNC can now rest easy knowing that they will not have to compromise their beliefs in order to participate in the life of the college."
In August, Psalm 100 voted to dismiss a member who, having recently come out as gay, had affirmed that he no longer agreed with the group's belief that the Bible restricts sexual activity to heterosexual marriage. (At the request of Psalm 100, FIRE will not identify the student.) While no complaint was filed by the dismissed member or anyone else, UNC nevertheless opened an investigation to determine whether the dismissal violated UNC's nondiscrimination policy.
UNC's Student Organizations Nondiscrimination Policy bans discrimination based on a wide variety of protected classes including sexual orientation, but also specifies that "[s]tudent organizations that select their members on the basis of commitment to a set of beliefs (e.g., religious or political beliefs) may limit membership and participation in the organization to students who, upon individual inquiry, affirm that they support the organization's goals and agree with its beliefs." Psalm 100 is such an organization. According to its website, "Every note we sing ... is under [God's] will and for His glory."
FIRE wrote UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp on September 16, 2011, asking that any investigation be "straightforward and brief, granting those involved time to reflect and move on following what has by accounts been a painful process for all parties." FIRE further asked that UNC "have the wisdom to follow its own policy, and to resist the temptation to prolong the investigation to make a political point or to satisfy other ideological groups on campus." Psalm 100 was also advised by North Carolina attorneys Luke Farley and Tyler Younts.
Yesterday, in a letter to Psalm 100's president, UNC Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp wrote that "based upon the evidence we received from Psalm 100 and the member who was removed from Psalm 100, we were unable to conclude that Psalm 100 excluded the former member based upon the former member's status rather than upon the former member's beliefs."
"UNC's policy wisely allows belief-based groups to make belief-based decisions when it comes to membership and leadership," said FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy William Creeley. "By adhering to its policy, UNC has acknowledged America's commitment to religious pluralism, allowing Christian groups to be Christian, Jewish groups to be Jewish, Muslim groups to be Muslim, and so forth."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
William Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Winston Crisp, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: 919-966-4045; email@example.com