The liberties of groups

We have blogged about universities banning Christian groups unless they are willing to accept non-Christian members and leaders.  The Supreme Court has just refused to hear a case questioning this practice.  See Supreme Court declines religious liberty case.

Meanwhile, Michael Stokes Paulsen, while blasting Vanderbilt University for doing this, goes on to argue that Vanderbilt has the right to do so, the same right that protects Christian colleges:

Groups, as well as individuals, possess the “freedom of speech.” Just as individuals get to control the content of their own expression, groups of individuals, joining their voices together in some common association, have the right to control their collective message. Thus, a vital principle of the First Amendment as it applies to private groups, associations, and institutions—including private universities—is that such groups have nearly absolute freedom to create and maintain their own distinctive group expressive identities: to decide what they stand for and what views they will express.

This is the freedom that supports the right of private religious colleges to maintain their distinctive religious identities. And the same freedom equally supports the right of Vanderbilt University to maintain a distinctive anti-religious identity. In each case, the institution may embrace the principles that define it as a group and exclude or suppress messages at odds with the values for which the institution wishes to stand. . . .

Vanderbilt has a history of excluding groups that express messages antithetical to the one it wants to convey. Well into the 1960s it was a racially segregated institution that excluded blacks from its undergraduate and most graduate programs. In 1960, the university expelled a black Divinity School student, James Lawson, for his participation in peaceful sit-in protests of lunch-counter segregation in the Nashville community. It is perhaps in (unthinking) hypersensitivity to its racist past that Vanderbilt has adopted a policy of forbidding campus religious groups to exclude members on the basis of religious belief. Ironically, in so doing Vanderbilt has done just what it did in an earlier era: expel the expression of views of which it disapproves.

One may disagree with Vanderbilt’s principles of exclusion, now as then. I certainly do: the idea that Christian groups should be excluded for being Christian is downright ludicrous—an Orwellian perversion of Vanderbilt’s stated commitment to diversity. In its own way, it is as unbelievable as excluding James Lawson for his commitment to racial justice.

Freedom sometimes protects one’s ability to do wrong. It is Vanderbilt’s First Amendment right to exclude the groups and messages it wants excluded from its campus and its community. . . .

There is a further, bitter irony in all this. The reason why Vanderbilt may discriminate against religion is precisely the same principle of freedom that Vanderbilt denies to religious groups on its campus—the freedom to form its own expressive identity. Vanderbilt purports to be liberal and tolerant of different views. But its university officials do not appear to understand what this means. They think the university is being open-minded by requiring student groups, including religious groups, to conform to university officials’ view of orthodoxy. This is not so much hypocritical or cynical (though it may be that as well) as simply embarrassingly ignorant. Vanderbilt does not appear even to recognize that its actions are intolerant. It thinks it is protecting its community from improper influences, just as it once thought that segregation protected its community.

HT:  Matthew Schmitz

Your religion mustn’t affect your life!

Vanderbilt is doubling down on its insistence that Christian groups on campus must admit non-Christians.  What’s interesting is hearing the university try to justify that.  Robert Shibley of the civil liberty group FIRE quotes Vanderbilt’s provost explaining the policy to a gathering of students, answering a question from someone in the Christian Legal Society:

VANDERBILT LAW STUDENT AND CLS MEMBER PALMER WILLIAMS: I am a little confused by the fact that under your policy, I can gather with a group of my friends, or a group of like-minded people, I can state my beliefs, but as soon as I go as far as writing down what we believe in, and then try to live by those beliefs as a community on campus, then I’m not allowed to do that.

VICE CHANCELLOR [RICHARD] MCCARTY: What I’m going to challenge you to do, [is] to be open to a member that doesn’t share your faith beliefs who could be a wonderful member of CLS, maybe even a leader. But we’re not saying you have to vote for that person. We’re simply saying that person, who maybe does not profess allegiance to Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior, should be allowed to run for office in CLS. Maybe it’s not chair or president, maybe it’s a person who is amazing at social outreach. It would still be consistent with your goals of serving the underserved with legal advice and legal services, but maybe isn’t Christian but they endorse what you’re trying to do. Give that person a chance. . . . Now let me give you another example, and this would affect all of you. I’m Catholic. What if my faith beliefs guided all of the decisions I make from day to day?

[At this point, the crowd applauds the idea that people should live according to their faith.]

No they shouldn’t! No they shouldn’t! No they shouldn’t! No they shouldn’t! [Disagreement from crowd.] Well, I know you do, but I’m telling you that as a Catholic I am very comfortable using my best judgment as a person to make decisions. As a Catholic, if I held that life begins at conception, I’d have a very big problem with our hospital. Right? Would I not? . . . I would, but I don’t. . . . We don’t want to have personal religious views intrude on good decisionmaking on this campus. They can guide your personal conduct, but I’m not going to let my faith life intrude. I’ll do the best I can at making good decisions, but I’m not going to impose my beliefs on others, not going to do it.

Comments Mr. Shibley:  “Yes, you just heard the vice chancellor of Vanderbilt University tell students that they shouldn’t let their religious views intrude on their decisionmaking. That their religious beliefs should not guide their day-to-day actions. That people who reject faith in Jesus Christ should be given a chance as leaders of a Christian group (he later adds that Muslim groups must retain leaders who have lost faith in Allah). And to top it off, he uses the fact that as a Catholic, he has no problem with the abortions performed in Vanderbilt’s hospital as an example of what is expected.”

via The Fallout from Christian Legal Society – Robert Shibley – National Review Online.


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