Free to be a Christian group on campus
Christian groups have little recourse against nondiscrimination rules at private schools
Luke Baird enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz., campus because he thought a smaller, private school with a heavy military influence would be more conservative. That proved wrong, at least with respect to university administrators. Baird went head-to-head with a nondiscrimination policy that school officials said required a campus Christian group to open its leadership to non-Christians.
Trouble began in 2016 when school administrators at the aviation-focused school accused the nondenominational Campus Christian Fellowship (CCF) of limiting membership to those who subscribed to a Christian statement of faith. The group maintained official status by amending their constitution to clarify that any student could become a member.
But that wasn’t good enough, Baird said. In the spring of 2018, the school rejected the group’s constitution again because it required leaders to subscribe to the statement of faith. Administrators argued the school’s nondiscrimination clause meant leadership also had to be open to all students.
CCF leadership couldn’t agree to that, said Baird, who served as president of the group at the time and until graduation in May of this year. “They basically gave us indefinite provisional standing so long as we were talking to them and trying to find a compromise,” he said. That allowed the group to reserve meeting space on campus, but restricted access to official school communication.
The school lifted the provisional status two years ago. But this spring, administrators put the group back on provisional status. In an April 9 email, Director of Student Engagement Emily Bauer told Baird the group’s constitution violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy: “Specifically, when you begin to deny membership or officer positions based on biblical lifestyle, you are crossing a line into discrimination.”
Baird, who has since graduated, said administrators have delayed meeting with the new student leaders eight times to discuss the group’s status since that email.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court held University of Iowa administrators personally liable for unconstitutionally enforcing a similar policy against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. But the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private institutions like Embry-Riddle the way it does to public universities, said Tyson Langhofer, who directs the Center for Academic Freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom.
Even so, religious student groups at private universities are not entirely without recourse. Students can argue that schools are guilty of misrepresentation or breach of contract if they have a free speech policy that protects student groups’ academic freedom, he said. It’s even more likely students can challenge schools in other ways: gaining support from sympathetic alumni, arguing that federal nondiscrimination language applies to the schools and not students or student groups, and challenging institutions to live up to their lofty mission of being a marketplace of ideas.
“Most of the time it’s not animosity from the administration side … but from student groups or outside interest groups that are pressuring them,” Langhofer said. “The solution is administrators having courage, because when they stand, [opposition] usually breaks down.”
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