For the second time in two years the University of North Carolina finds itself embroiled in a First Amendment dispute with Christian groups on campus.
The Chapel Hill school has removed official recognition of Alpha Iota Omega, a Christian fraternity, because its officers have refused to sign an anti-discrimination clause on a university application that would have required the group to accept any student as a member, regardless of religion.
The group was formed five years ago for the purpose of “providing leadership and outreach to the campus Greek community through evangelism and mentorship.” Without official recognition, Alpha Iota Omega does not qualify to receive student fee money.
“I’m not sure what our next move is going to be,” Trevor Hamm, president of the fraternity, told the Raleigh News & Observer. “I just feel that, legally, as a Christian organization at a public university, we have the right to maintain the Christian nature of our organization.”
Hamm has sought assistance from the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a national civil liberties organization.
In a letter to UNC-CH Chancellor James Moeser, the foundation emphasized the fraternity’s belief that a shared faith was central to the group’s identity: “UNC simply may not use its nondiscrimination policy to dictate how religious student organizations must deal with matters of faith. No group can control the content of its message if it is unable to choose its messengers.”
Moeser and the university, however, have refused to back down, insisting that all student groups must have open memberships.
“At this university, we encourage students to nurture their moral, spiritual and religious lives,” he wrote in his reply to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, according to the Associated Press. “And we do not discriminate against students seeking recognition for religious groups.
“So, for example, Baptist student groups are open to Presbyterian students; Jewish student groups are open to Christian students; the Italian Club is open to Korean students; and the Black Student Movement is open to white students,” Moeser concluded.
UNC noted that it has 595 officially recognized student groups representing 5,000 students at the Chapel Hill campus and all but Alpha Iota Omega had agreed to the university’s nondiscrimination policy, including 42 that are religious.
In rejecting the request to reconsider, Moeser said it is the university’s duty to balance the constitutional principles of nondiscrimination and free association.
“The Constitution allows people to join associations on the basis of shared beliefs, and it allows them to exclude people of dissimilar beliefs,” says Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “College Republicans, for example, don’t have to include Democrats in their group. It’s a basic, common sense moral right.”
UNC was involved in a similar flap in 2002 when it withheld recognition for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because the group required its leaders to be Christians. The uproar that followed was met with a change of mind by Chancellor Moeser at that time, and a policy was adopted allowing religious groups to require that leaders share the group’s faith. However, membership had to remain open to all.
“This is the second time in a year and a half we’ve had something like this at UNC Chapel Hill,” says Lukianoff. “The fact that this is happening again is outrageous.”
Meanwhile, North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones is calling for an investigation into UNC’s policies toward the constitutional rights of Christian groups.
“This is unacceptable – and I would say that if this was a Moslem group,” he told Agape Press. “But it seems to me that young people of the Christian faith are being singled out, not only at the University of North Carolina but at other institutions of higher learning.”
During 2002’s summer session, UNC drew national attention for requiring its 3,600 incoming freshmen and transfer students to enroll in a class on Islam and attend group discussions around the mandatory text, “Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations.”
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