It’s Not Religious Discrimination to Say That College Groups, Even Christian Ones, Must Be Open to All Students

Most official college organizations have to adhere to a few rules, one of which is that they must not be discriminatory. They can’t reject homosexuals or black people or Republicans or atheists from their groups even if it seems antithetical to the groups’ missions. So, for example, the Young Republicans can’t exclude an open Democrat who wants to become a member.

For the most part, that makes a lot of sense. Public schools have non-discrimination policies, and those rules apply to campus groups as well.

But what about the leadership of the organizations?

For years now, Christian groups have been fighting a battle on some campuses to make sure that their officer positions are reserved only for other Christians (the proper kind, of course). They want the right to ban LGBT-affirming members of their group from becoming leaders — without losing the benefits that come with being a registered campus group.

Yesterday, the New York TimesMichael Paulson reported on one such controversy at Bowdoin College in Maine:

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

The consequences for evangelical groups that refuse to agree to the nondiscrimination policies, and therefore lose their official standing, vary by campus. The students can still meet informally on campus, but in most cases their groups lose access to student activity fee money as well as first claim to low-cost or free university spaces for meetings and worship; they also lose access to standard on-campus recruiting tools, such as activities fairs and bulletin boards, and may lose the right to use the universities’ names.

It’s hard to sympathize with the Christians’ desires here when their worst-case scenarios are so outlandish.

It’s not like pro-LGBT liberals are swarming to join Campus Crusade for Christ, electing themselves the group’s leaders, disbanding the organization, and claiming victory.

The rules that are in place at these schools are perfectly acceptable. All students are allowed to become members of the groups. Officers, however, still have to be elected from within the organization. And if you don’t support the group’s mission and goals, why would you want to join its leadership in the first place? (How would you even get elected?) There’s no quota that says one leadership position must be reserved for someone who disagrees with the positions of the group. Furthermore, the organizations still have total control over what their Constitutions say — so an evangelical campus group can still spell out the fact that it only supports heterosexual marriage.

It’s not censorship, either. The campuses aren’t saying students can’t form groups if they hold certain abhorrent views. But those groups have to be open to everyone — at least if they want the benefits the school provides.

Notice, by the way, that atheist groups are never featured in articles like this. That’s because just about every campus atheist group I’ve seen welcomes religious students with open arms — they make the discussions and debates far more interesting. I’ll admit I’m not sure if any religious students have ever held officer positions in those groups, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some did. There’s rarely, if ever, a litmus test that officers have to be atheists. If they support the goals of the group, then it shouldn’t matter.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Masada 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.


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