College campus holy wars

Anyone who explores academic hallways on American campuses will find lots of cartoons posted on professors’ office doors and bulletin boards.

But what if the cartoons included the Prophet Muhammad?

In one famous case, a professor at Century College in Minnesota dared to post the Muhammad cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper. Facing fierce criticism, she put the images behind a curtain so that anyone passing her bulletin board would not see them unless they chose to do so. Administrators quickly created a policy requiring advance approval of all posted items.

It’s easy to find hot religion buttons on campuses. What if a club tried to screen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and administrators banned it, citing its R-rating and controversial content? What if the same administrators allowed a play on campus in which a character pretended to perform a sex act on an image of Jesus?

What if a Jewish group sponsored a campus lecture by an Israeli official and it had to be cancelled due to heckling by Palestinian students? What if a professor urged students to destroy a campus-approved display of tiny crosses, created by pro-life students, that symbolically represented their opposition to abortion?

These cases are real and there are hundreds more.

Passions are boiling over on many campuses,” stressed attorney William Creeley, who directs legal teams for the secular Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “Students and professors and administrators are fighting about all kinds of things, but the surface issues are often proxies for the real issue — which is religion. …

“The garb in which these clashes are clothed may be student rights or campus fees, but they are usually about religion, morality and sex.”

A recent survey by the foundation, he said, found that 71 percent of America’s campuses try to enforce codes that in some way clash with the First Amendment. Meanwhile, many private schools — which can create covenants that limit many freedoms — are failing to warn students, faculty and staff about the contents of the documents they sign when entering these voluntary associations.

Catholic educators at Georgetown University had a legal right to ask the abortion-rights group “Hoyas for Choice” to operate under the name “H*yas for Choice” and to deny it some campus benefits. DePaul University had a right to deny equal treatment to a group called “Students for Cannabis Policy Reform.” The issue, said Creeley, is whether private-school leaders explicitly warn students and parents — before they enroll — about “what they are getting into.”

Scratch the surface and it’s easy to find religion in other campus conflicts. For example, “conservatives” often claim they face discrimination when seeking faculty promotions or jobs in prestigious schools, especially in science and political science departments. Programs that discuss Islam, or deal with Israel and the Middle East in general, continue to generate heat. Can faculty who dissect the Bible do similar textual criticism of the Koran?

However, any FIRE review of recent campus fights, said Creeley, would have to discuss whether or not religious groups on state campuses can insist that their leaders support their foundational beliefs. In other words, can a Jewish group insist that its leaders support the right of Israel to exist? Can a pro-life group insist that its leadership be limited to those who oppose abortion? Can an evangelical group require that all members of its leadership believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court — in another 5-4 decision — ruled that the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco could require its Christian Legal Society chapter to use an “all comers” policy for members and leaders or lose its status as a campus organization. The case pivoted on the group’s affirmation that sex outside of marriage — the union of husband and wife — is sinful.

FIRE has tracked 40 or more disputes of this kind, noted Creeley, and there are sure to be more.

“I cannot think of anything less ‘liberal’ than what we are seeing on many campuses,” he said. While most educators “pride themselves on offering a ‘liberal education,’ ” many are now promoting “an orthodoxy that tempts them to edit the First Amendment. … You end up driving certain points of view off campus and silencing the religious voices that trouble you. That’s dangerous — period.”

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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