US: University bans Christian group from campus

A Dayton, Ohio, university has banned a Christian group from meeting on campus because of the group's requirement that voting members be Christian and its refusal to accept "non-discrimination" language that would eliminate faith-based standards. The Campus Bible Fellowship at Wright State University sought help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, known as FIRE.

"A Christian group has the right to be Christian, a Jewish group has the right to be Jewish, and a Muslim group has the right to be Muslim," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "Courts have affirmed this principle time and time again. It is shocking that in a free society, public universities such as Wright State still don't seem to understand or respect this crucial component of religious liberty."

After more than 30 years as a registered student organisation at Wright State, the Campus Bible Fellowship (CBF) was prohibited from re-registering in 2009. On January 30, according to CBF representatives Joe Hollaway and Gary Holtz, CBF was informed by Wright State's Office of Student Activities that its registration was being denied for two reasons.

First, CBF refused to adopt university-mandated non-discrimination language in its membership requirements that would have stripped the group of the right to require voting members to adhere to religious and behavioural standards. (Non-voting members did not have to meet these standards.)

Second, Wright State objected to the requirement in the group's constitution that voting members "accept Jesus Christ as their personal saviour" and subscribe to the group's articles of faith. Strangely, however, Wright State has so far refused to put this decision in writing.

CBF, which has been unable to meet on campus since the decision, contacted FIRE for help. The foundation wrote to Wright State President David R Hopkins on 12 February informing him of federal legal precedent setting out the principle that "if Wright State is to allow expressive organisations to exist on its campus at all, it must allow religious organisations to exist, to define their missions, [and] to select their own members."

FIRE also pointed to its victories in similar religious liberty cases at Ohio State University and at Tufts University.

My own view as FIRE vice-president is that Wright State's demands are not only unconstitutional, they are nonsensical. It makes no sense for the university to force a group that exists to communicate its version of the Christian message to accept voting members or leaders who reject that very message.

While President Hopkins has yet to respond to FIRE, the university's general counsel Gwen Mattison has continued the university's increasingly suspicious practice of refusing to respond in writing to letters from CBF and FIRE. On 26 February, Mattison phoned FIRE's Adam Kissel to inform him that Wright State would be recognising CBF for the remainder of the academic year but that the group would be required to make changes to its constitution when reapplying in May.

But when Kissel e-mailed Mattison to confirm the substance of the conversation, Mattison refused, saying only: "Incorrect - no other reply will be forthcoming." CBF reports that it also has no knowledge that the ban has been lifted.

If Wright State thinks it can avoid the consequences of its actions by refusing to put its dealings with the Campus Bible Fellowship in writing, it is sorely mistaken. This shady practice strongly suggests the university knows that its actions are illegitimate and unconstitutional.

Wright State even appears to be violating its own policy that organisations created "for the purpose of deepening the religious faith of students within the context of a denominational or interdenominational grouping ... may register through customary procedures" even if they exclude members on the basis of religious views.

FIRE has called on Hopkins to immediately reverse the ban on the Campus Bible Fellowship and ensure that its policies do not consign religious organisations to second-class status. While FIRE itself does not engage in litigation, Wright State would be wise to change course immediately to avoid ending up on the wrong side of an embarrassing and expensive civil rights lawsuit.

* Robert L Shibley is Vice President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit educational foundation that aims to unite civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on US campuses. See www.thefire.org