Religious Freedom and Discriminatory Student Groups

John Leo at Minding the Campus discusses the issue of discriminatory policies by registered student organizations and claims, “religious groups should have absolute freedom in the process of picking their leaders.”

Actually, he doesn’t really believe that, because that’s what I believe. The whole argument over religious student groups is the demand by some that students should not have absolute freedom to choose their leaders. That’s the point. These groups want to have rules that limit the choice of students so that leaders are obligated to follow certain values. Absolute freedom is my position, not Leo’s.

Leo might claim that the key word here is “process.” He thinks students should have absolute freedom to restrict their freedom to pick leaders. That’s an odd kind of freedom. In the real world, national groups like the Christian Legal Society impose these restrictions on students as a condition of affiliation in order to exert control over the students, which isn’t exactly “absolutely freedom” for students. Beyond these philosophical problems of restricting the freedom of future generations of students to choose their own leaders, discriminatory rules have a fatal flaw in practice: someone must be trusted to enforce them.

The problem is that if you have a constitutional provision requiring religious discrimination, say that only Christians who obey the Bible can be leaders, then someone must enforce this. And I have never, despite many attempts, been able to get a straight answer from defenders of religious discrimination rules to this question: who gets to enforce these rules?

Now, it can’t be the students in the group, because the whole point of a constitutional provision is to overrule the will of the students. Let’s imagine that a Christian student group that requires its leaders to be Christians elects a Mormon as a leader, and a fundamentalist student files an objection that Mormons are not Christians. At most colleges, a student judicial system, with appeals to the administration, would have to determine whether Mormons are Christians (frankly, I’m not sure of the answer to that). In other words, under the rules Leo is demanding, students and administration who are not members of a religious student group would get to interpret what that student group’s religious values are. I can’t fathom why giving someone (they won’t specify whom) the power to overrule the decisions of religious students about who they want to vote for must increase religious freedom.

Let’s not forget about the gay elephant in the room. Nobody is afraid of roving gangs of atheists taking over religious groups. The sole fear stems from national religious groups who despise equal rights for gays and lesbians, and they are afraid that liberal-minded college students don’t hate gays enough to ban these people from leadership positions. So, they want rules in the student group constitutions to prohibit them by requiring allegiance to the group’s religious values, which are anti-gay. Every single controversy over a specific incident involving these religious groups has dealt with a gay student who held or wanted to run for a leadership position, and the national religious group’s desire to prohibit this.

But we don’t need to deal with the question of equal rights for gays vs. religious freedom. Religious freedom itself requires a ban on discriminatory religious provisions. This is about individual rights vs. group rights. All individuals should be free to join any student groups they want to, and run for leadership positions, regardless of their religious views. That’s what religious freedom for individuals means. If you want to create a private discriminatory religious group, you are free to do so, but registered student groups which use the resources of all students have to be open to all students.

So, discriminatory religious rules violate the principle that students in religious groups should have absolute freedom to select their leaders. Those who embrace discriminatory rules have a moral obligation to explain exactly who should be given the power to overrule the free choices of students, and why religious freedom is enhanced by limiting the freedom of these religious students.

3 thoughts on “Religious Freedom and Discriminatory Student Groups

  1. Pingback: On Bowdoin: Freedom of conscience, or just the thought of it? | Inklingations

    • I encourage everyone to read the full response to my article. Here’s my response:

      Thanks for this thoughtful analysis. If I had to choose sides in the individual rights vs. group rights debate, I would pick individual rights, particularly for university-created student group utilizing the resources of all students. But I don’t think I need to make that choice here.

      Let’s be clear: the students already have religious freedom and diversity. They already have the right to create groups of any kind, and to choose any leaders they want. What they are asking for (at the demand of national groups) is the freedom to restrict their own freedom to choose their leaders. I think this is a deeply misguided idea. If I was in a religious student group, the last thing I would want to do is give the administration the power to interpret my religious faith and overrule my group’s choices about who should be elected leader.

      I do not imagine that this is a secretive coven of anti-gay zealots. I attend Intervarsity Christian Fellowship meetings in college long ago, and found the people there to be incredibly nice and friendly (indeed, almost irritatingly so). For the national groups, that’s precisely the problem. They don’t trust their own students, and fear that they might be so nice that they might elect gay people to leadership positions, instead of obeying the Bible and hating gays. That’s why they want to pressure these student groups to adopt discriminatory rules as a condition of affiliation.

      Now, you argue that exclusion is inherent to religious liberty. That’s true for private religious groups. But student groups are very different: they are subunits of colleges, with no independent legal existence, which exist to serve students. Student groups are by definition inclusive. Trying to shoehorn exclusion into these inclusive groups is not just a violation of a college’s basic principles, but it’s also dangerous to religious liberty. Unlike a private religious group, student religious groups don’t have a board or legal mechanism to maintain exclusion. That’s why the student group constitutions effectively put administrators in charge of enforcing religious doctrine for exclusion, which I hope everybody can see is a bad idea.

      Taking a stand on one side or the other is not repeating Leo’s mistake. Colleges (and the rest of us) have to take a stand on this issue. You think you’ve got me trapped when says that if I care about diversity, I must want more diverse ways of governing student groups. That’s nonsense. By that logic, we would have more diversity if we allowed student groups to discriminate based on race (and I’m not sure how we can logically allow it for religion but not race).

      When it comes to the rules governing student groups, I don’t want diversity, I want freedom. I want freedom for all students to participate in groups they want to, I want freedom for students to form any groups they wish, and I want freedom for students to choose their own leaders. Within this structure of freedom, there is also complete diversity. There is not a single religious belief or idea that is being prevented from being expressed due to allowing anyone to run for leadership posts. So, which do you prefer: the idea of freedom being invoked as a slogan, or the reality of freedom?

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