Virginia Tech Now Offers Funding for Religious Groups

Most colleges have a policy when it comes to funding student groups: You have to be a registered student organization in order to get any money. Once you’re officially registered (whatever that requires), you have access to grants, free meeting space, the ability to advertise, etc.

Virginia Tech had a different policy for religious groups, though:

Organizations will not be provided funding to support religious worship or religious proselytizing. Funding requests to host religiously oriented programs, on campus and open to the community, that are educational and balanced in nature will be considered by the board.”

That’s pretty weird… it means that a group like Campus Crusade for Christ couldn’t even get funding to, say, buy pizza for a Bible study.

It seems like every other university allows registered religious groups access to their funds, just like all the other groups… so why was VT forbidding it?

That’s what the Virginia Family Foundation and Alliance Defense Fund wanted to know. They complained — rightfully so, I think — and the policy has now been reversed:

Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said university legal counsel, after reviewing the Alliance Defense Fund’s argument, advised that the policy likely didn’t pass Constitutional muster.

Does this policy benefit atheists?

It would, except that the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech were listed as a “Special Interest” group, so they were eligible for the funding already. (At many other campuses, the atheist groups categorize themselves as Religious so that students looking for such groups notice them.)

(Thanks to Keith for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Stev84

    The worship thing was ill defined. It makes sense in a way, because people can simply go to a real church and there no need whatsoever to hold services on campus. But it probably didn’t distinguish between group prayers and actual services for example. It’s hard to draw the line somewhere.

    But it’s absolutely correct to not allow active proselyting. It’s one thing to make information available and wait for people to come to you. But these groups aren’t happy with that. They want to walk around and harass people all the time.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    As a parent of a Virginia college student, I don’t mind religious groups that are registered on campus using college space for meetings or advertising their events.  I DO mind my tax $$ being given to them in any form.

    • Joe Zamecki

      Agreed. I’m wondering why groups get funding from the college. Meeting space and use of facilities, yes, that’s logical and it’s already there. But money too? Heck, whenever I started a group, we used our own personal money for everything. We weren’t rich either.

      • 3lemenope

        In most colleges/universities, they aren’t really getting the money from the university. There is usually a student services/activities fee that is rolled into general tuition and fees, and that’s what pays for the budget of the student groups. So it’s not so much the state as the students themselves collectively that are paying for stuff; the school’s involvement beyond being the mechanism of collection for the fee varies from “none at all” in schools where the student government controls those resources completely (such as the one I attended), all the way to “complete control”, bounded only by the requirements of law.

  • http://CoffeeShopAtheist.com/blog Patrick

    In college, I was the president of Fellowship of Christian Athletes at South Carolina, and I can say the norm is to NOT fund religious groups on campus.

    Many large/megachurches give grants and budget expenses for “College Outreach,” which includes having a college ministry (in a town with a large college), but also funding goes to on-campus proselytizing groups.To give you an idea, we had a $7k/year budget, much more than what was doled out by the student government.  After all, why should one religion get preferential treatment, especially when there may be a single atheist or Islamic group on campus, but a myriad of Christian groups.  Off the top of my head at my University, we had the Navigators, CRU, FCA, BCM (Baptist collegiate), MSN (Methodist students), RUF, and probably a slew of others that weren’t as up-front.

    I find that giving religious groups money is preferential treatment, but also admit I’d like the funding as an SSA affiliate now.

  • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

    If you’re wondering why it doesn’t past Constitutional muster for student organization funds to be withheld for things some would consider “too religious”:

    http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2012/04/widmar-v-vincent.html

  • 3lemenope

    Virginia Tech’s policy closely mirrors the policy at the university that I attended (and helped write :), except for the second part. The requirement that a program must be “neutral and educational in nature” before it could be considered for funding would, if I would wildly guess, actually be the more problematic part. Our rule was simply, no money for proselytization, recruitment, or worship. In our experience, wading into the weeds of what types of non-worship non-proselytizing events would be adequately neutral (never mind “educational”, whatever that means) was a pointless and legally hazardous exercise; it was much better to just judge whether the program met the criteria by looking at how it was going to be advertised, and then rely on complaints-after-the-fact if a person who actually attended found they had hopped the line.

    Believe it or not we never had a case while I was there of a religious group attempting to skirt the rules. Oddly enough, I met my significant other of now seven years while I was on the student government and she was petitioning for funding for an event by a religious group she belonged to (she is now an atheist). The event was a benefit concert for child victims of slavery and sex exploitation in Indonesia. She got the funding, based on the criteria.

  • Maevwen

    “**Most** colleges have a policy when it comes to funding student groups: You
    have to be a religious student organization in order to get any money.”  Where exactly is the data to support this????
    At my university in Michigan, where I was a student government leader, funding from the university and from the student government to registered student organizations, is open to all groups to apply provided that the events are open to all and do not proselytize, and do not benefit a specific charity or politician.  The university and funding sources cannot be seen to specifically endorse one belief, politician, charity, etc over another but rather all groups must have equal opportunity for access.  This does not mean that religious org cannot form or apply for funding. 
    I support awareness of atheist issues, separation of church and state, and enabling education about tolerance across the board.  The way this article was written is misleading, and while I usually think pretty highly about Hemant, the way this demonizes colleges and universities as mindless automatons that kowtow and rain money on religious orgs is disappointing. 

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      That was a typo. I meant to say “registered,” not “religious.” Sorry. My fault entirely. It’s fixed now.

  • Gus Snarp

    I’m a little confused. You started this article with:

      Most colleges have a policy when it comes to funding student groups:  You have to be a religious student organization in order to get any money.

    which is not a policy I’ve ever heard of, anywhere. All sorts of student groups at most universities get funding. You even contradicted this statement twice later in the article when you said:

    It seems like every other university allows registered religious groups access to their funds, just like all the other groups

    and

    the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech were listed as a “Special Interest” group, so they were eligible for the funding already 

    So which is it, do you have to be a religious group to get funding at most universities, or do “all other groups” including “Special Interest” groups already get funding? Or was that just an exaggeration to make a joke, or some kind of typo? Because it sounds like a claim, one that is demonstrably false, and while atheist groups can have a hard time, we shouldn’t make claims that are untrue while discussing that.

    • 3lemenope

      I hope Hemant doesn’t mean what the sentence, in a plain reading, seems to mean, because as you say, it is very clearly false. All sorts of non-religious groups get funding and religious groups tend to be a small minority of total groups on campus. 

      But given how ridiculously obviously false it is, I think that calls for trying to reinterpret charitably (since Hemant, so far as I know from my experience, usually strives to be accurate in his claims). Given the sentence that immediately follows it, it just seems to me a particularly unclear way of saying something like “in order to be a religious group who gets funding at a university, you have to be an officially registered religious group (whatever that requires)”.

      It would probably be a good thing for him to clarify what he meant in any case.

    • http://etratio.blogspot.com/ linford86

       I believe that:

      >Most colleges have a policy when it comes to funding student
      groups:  You have to be a religious student organization in order to get
      any money.

      is a typo. Should probably read:

      >Most colleges have a policy when it comes to funding student
      groups:  You must not be a religious student organization in order to get
      any money.

      Our Freethinkers group (which is not exclusively an atheist group, although we serve that community) does get some money from the University (though not much, and I would certainly like to see us getting more.)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      That was a typo. I meant to say “registered,” not “religious.” Sorry. My fault entirely. It’s fixed now.

      • Gus Snarp

        Ah, that explains it. I would have just pointed out the typo, but I couldn’t figure out what it could be.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I think it is good and proper that publicly funded schools be prohibited from funding religious clubs or organizations in any way- including pizza at Bible study. Properly written, I don’t see how that should run into Constitutional problems, but we’ re not living in a country where the legal system currently shows much respect for the separation of state and church, so I guess I should believe anything.

    • guest

      that ^^^^^^

    • 3lemenope


      I think it is good and proper that publicly funded schools be prohibited from funding religious clubs or organizations in any way- including pizza at Bible study.

      Since you’re arguing against the status quo, explaining why you think it should be good and proper might be a good idea. I am no fan of religion, but I do have extensive (8+ years) experience dealing with the issues surrounding funding student groups in higher education, and it is not at all obvious to me that changing the current policies of allowing access to facilities and funding for non-proselytizing non-worship activities to something much more restrictive is either good or proper.

      • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        In my view, providing money out of public funds, even to the extent of offering janitorial services for facilities used, violates the First Amendment if the funds are supporting a religious group. I agree that some care needs to be taken in defining just what a religious group is, but the new VT policy would seem to allow groups that worship and proselytize, and I definitely think that crosses the line.

        Frankly, I think the best strategy is to provide no money out of public funds for any student groups, but that’s a matter of political policy, not a Constitutional issue.

        • 3lemenope

          As I pointed out up-thread, it is difficult to cleanly classify student activities dollars as “public funds”, since the money doesn’t generally come from the state at all. But beyond that, I have a hard time countenancing an actual Establishment violation for allowing a religious group to use a public space for their meetings or for using resources made otherwise generally available in a content-neutral manner.

      • http://etratio.blogspot.com/ linford86

         The religious student groups do appear to use university space for worshiping. As a Tech student and a member of Freethinkers at VT, I don’t really have anything against their using the space (we use the space too and have never had any problems.) I know that both Cru and VTOne meet on campus in our large auditoriums. As far as I am aware, these student spaces are open to all students so long as they pay the associated fees.

        • http://etratio.blogspot.com/ linford86

          I should add that since religious groups were already using these spaces, and are already massively well funded, I don’t know what the change in policy really means. I’m currently trying to figure that out for our group and will be crafting a press release in the near future.

  • guest

    I have to disagree on that one. The original policy was completely fine IMO.  “Organizations will not be provided funding to support religious worship or religious proselytizing” no funding for worship or proselytizing? yes please. It’s a educational organization, not social welfare. Churches don’t pay taxes, hence shouldn’t receive any money from a public institution. Also don’t understand why it’s supposed to be unconstitutional. they can meet. they can pray. they just don’t get special funding. 

    • Stev84

      Not to mention that all these campus proselytizers are heavily funded by the churches. They have a combined budget of hundreds of millions. They certainly don’t need any money from from the university or the students.

  • http://etratio.blogspot.com/ linford86

    Hahaha. Thanks for picking this up, Hemant! As a proud officer in Free@VT, I can say that our student group is certainly rapidly growing. To my knowledge, we haven’t really met with a lot of organized opposition here. Still, the religious groups on campus far out number us.

  • Ibis3

    At first, I disagreed with you, Hemant. But I’ve decided that this situation is analogous to the mandate that insurance companies provide contraception regardless of what the employer thinks. Students pay into a fund to support student groups and all officially registered groups  should get access to the funding. The intermediary (in this case, the school) shouldn’t be judging what activities the clubs use the funding for.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that religious proselytising of any kind should be allowed on campus, whether funded or not. Advertise your existence, your events, hold debates or lectures espousing your views and mandate etc. — that’s fine, but proselytising is just another name for religious harassment.

  • anon101

    Imho the proivison of not funding proselytizing makes a lot of sense. But I think this is not really practical to enforce. So you end up either funding any organization or only neutral ones which would exclude any religious, atheist or political ones.


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