Tufts University’s Nondiscrimination Policy No Longer Applies to Religious Student Groups

Last year, Steven Jackson got kicked out of his leadership position in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) chapter at the University of Buffalo.

The reason? He was gay.

Steven Jackson. (Photo credit: Meg Kinsley of The Spectrum)

But IVCF couldn’t say that. They’re a registered campus organization and anti-gay bigotry isn’t allowed if you want campus funding. So, instead, they pressured Jackson into resigning on account of the fact that he didn’t condone anti-gay verses in the Bible. In other words, he didn’t fully accept the Bible. Therefore, IVCF felt it was perfectly fine to remove him from a leadership position.

Is that fair? Is that ethical? Is it legal?

For months now, Tufts University has been thinking about those same kinds of questions.

Earlier in the school year, the Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF) — an IVCF chapter — was suspended by the Tufts Community Union for having a clause in their Constitution that said anyone applying for a leadership position within the group had to adhere to a “Basis of Faith.”

This requirement violates the TCU Constitution’s non-discrimination clause by excluding students who do not share this belief system, according to Judiciary Chair Adam Sax.

“This is a matter of freedom of religion as we’re looking at it,” Sax, a senior, said. “The parts that need to be changed are parts that [should say] anyone of any faith can be part of this group and attain any leadership position.”

It seems like a silly rule. Of course you should have to be a Christian to lead a Christian group, right? Well… it’s not that simple. Should a white student be allowed to lead a black student group? Can a straight person run an LGBT group? Where do you draw the line? What if a Christian student who strongly supported church/state separation and LGBT rights wanted to lead an atheist group? Should they be rejected outright because of their religious beliefs if they genuinely want the best for the group?

TCF decided to appeal the school’s decision because losing “recognized” status was a big deal:

As an unrecognized group, TCF [lost] the right to use the Tufts name in its title or at any activities, schedule events or reserve university space through the Office for Campus Life and request and receive funding allocated by the TCU Treasury…

A memeber of the TCF’s Vision and Planning Team even made this case in a Tufts Daily op-ed:

As an organization that is part of the greater Tufts community, it is our desire to add to the discussions and activities on campus. Since we are an organization dedicated to the understanding of a set of faith−based beliefs, we feel that we have the right to be selective of our leaders on the basis of belief. This is not to govern the behaviors of the fellowship’s members, interested leaders, or current leaders, but to ensure that TCF remains centered on the traditional evangelical Christian beliefs on which it was founded. We want to be an organization that can appropriately provide guidance and a forum for discussion to other students who are interested in the discovery of the joy and satisfaction of following Jesus Christ.

On Wednesday, Tufts’ Committee on Student Life made their decision on TCF’s status: They’re allowing the Christian group to have a religious exemption to the nondiscrimination policy as long as there’s “doctrinal justification” for it.

The new policy changes the guidelines for the Judiciary’s group recognition process to allow religious groups to argue for “justified departures from the Tufts nondiscrimination policy” in their leadership decisions for Chaplaincy-approved religious reasons.

The decision also allows TCF to remain “conditionally recognized” — without the rights to apply for TCU Senate funding — while it reapplies for recognition under the new guidelines within 60 days.

Yet again, the rules have been twisted to accommodate religious bigotry. The Tufts Daily editorial board wrote a fantastic piece denouncing the school’s decision:

the CSL’s policy, rather than promoting religious freedom, promotes religious exceptionalism. It serves as a loophole that essentially invalidates the nondiscrimination policy — we do not discriminate at Tufts, except when we do — and sets a dangerous precedent that may, down the road, allow for sidestepping of that policy.

… by establishing an avenue through which only SRGs can seek exemption from this policy, the CSL is conferring priority to a single group protected by Tufts’ nondiscrimination clause. It establishes that religious freedom is a right that holds priority over the right to freedoms that any other group protected by the clause could claim. In effect, the same rules no longer apply to those claiming that right.

Already, a group called the Coalition Against Religious Exclusion (CARE) has formed on campus in opposition to this new policy.

My friend Walker Bristol, a Tufts student, tells me that all the other religious groups on campus (as well as Tufts Freethought) will either not make use of this loophole or continue to actively oppose it. That’s fantastic. Get a coalition of students who refuse to abide by the Christian Exemption and show up the students who want rules carved out just for them.

The fact that no other religious student group was clamoring for this rule-change says a lot about how insecure the TCF is about their own organization. I guarantee that the leaders of the club dismiss some parts of the Bible without second thought — because they’re human, and the Bible has a lot of crazy shit in it. But because they don’t disagree with the anti-gay parts of it, they get to call themselves “True Christians” and everyone else can fend for themselves.

That’s not the way a student group should act. That’s not the type of group a university should be supporting with funding. That’s not the kind of policy that was needed. The fact that TCF fought so hard to have a religious exemption to bigotry put in place probably weeded out all sorts of good people from their group, anyway, so they got what they wanted. Anyone who still wants to be a part of a cookie-cutter-Christian group that fights that hard to discriminate against people who don’t think exactly as they do on matters of faith can go join up. Everyone else knows better.

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.


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