University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Denies Recognition to Another Christian Group
August 12, 2004
CHAPEL HILL, N.C., August 12, 2004—For the second time in less than two years, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has denied recognition to a Christian group, claiming that the group's desire to limit its membership to Christians constitutes "discrimination."
"A Christian group has a right to be Christian, a Muslim group has a right to be Muslim, and a Jewish group has a right to be Jewish," said David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). "It seems absurd that anyone in a free society would have to make this argument, but time and time again FIRE has had to fight for this constitutional right at universities."
The Alpha Iota Omega Christian fraternity (AIO) at UNC contacted FIRE when, according to AIO leaders, the university suspended the group's recognition and froze its university account and web access without warning. This occurred after AIO objected to signing an agreement which would have prohibited the use of religious affiliation as a criterion for membership—because following such a policy would defeat the very purpose of having a Christian fraternity. Unrecognized groups do not have official rights at UNC and may not reserve space on campus, apply for funding from mandatory student fees, or take advantage of a variety of other rights and privileges that all recognized groups enjoy.
UNC's decision is all the more shocking in light of the fact that this is the second time in less than two years that FIRE has had to intervene on behalf of a religious student group suffering from discrimination at the hands of UNC's administration. In December of 2002, the very same UNC administrators attempted to force the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to remove a provision of its constitution that required the officers of that Christian group be Christian. UNC quickly reversed this decision after FIRE publicly exposed its unconstitutional and illiberal actions. Indeed, there have been dozens of cases in which universities have nonsensically punished religious organizations for alleged "discrimination" when they used religious criteria to make religiously significant decisions.
UNC's latest episode of discrimination against religious students began during the fall of 2003, when Segun Olagunju, at that time AIO's president, met with Jonathan Curtis, UNC's assistant director for student activities and organizations, to discuss his concerns about the group's application for recognition. Olagunju reports that during their meeting he offered to submit the fraternity's application to the administration along with an addendum objecting to the clause in the application that prohibits the use of religious affiliation as a criterion for membership. Curtis, the same administrator who initiated action against InterVarsity (and other Christian groups) in 2002, informed Olagunju that AIO was required to agree to the clause or face derecognition. Under these circumstances, AIO, which has been officially recognized every year since January of 1999, decided not to submit the application containing the nondiscrimination clause.
The members of AIO believe that the clause preventing the fraternity from choosing its members on the basis of religion would hinder its ability to maintain its religious character and mission. AIO defines its mission as, "to train Christian leaders… by upholding the Bible's true standard of righteousness."
"For more than twenty years, it has been the law that public universities must provide equal access to religious student organizations. These universities cannot condition that access on the adoption of nondiscrimination regulations that strike at the heart of the religious character of the group," said FIRE's French.
In July of 2004, FIRE wrote to UNC Chancellor James Moeser, saying, "UNC simply may not use its nondiscrimination policy to dictate how religious student organizations must deal with matters of faith. If UNC allows expressive organizations to exist at all on its campus, then it must allow religious organizations to exist, to select their own members, and to establish policies and practices in pursuit of their goals. No group can control the content of its message if it is unable to choose its messengers." While FIRE also expressed a desire to resolve the matter amicably, UNC has yet to attempt to refute the students' claims or even to defend its actions.
"It is particularly disappointing that UNC has once again denied basic constitutional rights to its religious student organizations. Unlike some other university administrations, UNC's leadership—because of its actions less than two years ago—is intimately familiar with the constitutional rights of religious students. UNC lacks any excuse for its shameful actions," said French.
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 at UNC and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
James Moeser, Chancellor, UNC-Chapel Hill: 919-962-1365; firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Curtis, Assistant Director for Student Activities and Organizations, UNC-Chapel Hill: 919-962-1461; email@example.com