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.