Christian student groups will make their case for religious liberty on college campuses Friday during a hearing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Although the commission has no authority to protect students’ right to organize based on their beliefs, its recommendation could persuade Congress to address the issue.
Campus Christian organizations, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, have submitted testimony to the commission in hopes it might influence future legislation, or even U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
“There’s a chance they may not come to any conclusion,” InterVarsity spokesman Gordon Govier said of the commission. “But at least the issue is on the record.”
During the last few years, dozens of InterVarsity chapters have faced threats of expulsion from campuses over their requirement that leaders affirm a biblically orthodox doctrinal statement. In most cases, the group has successfully persuaded public schools they cannot and should not ban Christians from campus.
InterVarsity has had less success at private colleges, which can restrict students’ activities as they choose. In the most recent case, trustees at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., denied InterVarsity’s request to require leaders to affirm their Christian faith. In February, trustees said granting an exemption to the school’s nondiscrimination policy, which forbids discrimination based on religion, “would be inconsistent with the processes of learning and growth that the college seeks to foster.”
Last year, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., became the largest private school to force religious groups to affirm a nondiscrimination policy, which prevents groups from limiting membership or leadership based on any criteria. Fifteen groups chose not to comply and lost their recognition as official student organizations.
The much publicized debate over the value of nondiscrimination policies and their effect on religious liberty prompted Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow to request the hearing, said commission spokeswoman Lenore Ostrowsky. Kirsanow is a lawyer and a Republican who also serves as chair of the Center for New Black Leadership and is a board member for the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank.
Friday’s meeting will include one panel discussion on the conflict between nondiscrimination policies and religious liberty. The other panel will review two recent Supreme Court cases involving religious liberty: Hosana-Tabor v. EEOC and CLS v. Martinez.
Restrictions on Christian student groups rose sharply after the 2010 CLS v. Martinez ruling, when the court upheld a public university’s right to adopt “all-comers” policies. Several schools interpreted the ruling as allowing them to prohibit religious groups from restricting leaders or members based on their beliefs. But religious liberty advocates point out the court did not address the question of whether “all-comers” policies could have exceptions. Most schools with nondiscrimination policies, including Vanderbilt, exempt groups like fraternities and sororities, which discriminate based on gender.
Since then, several states have adopted laws requiring their public universities to allow religious groups to organize based on belief. The federal government has not weighed in on the issue, expect through the courts.
After Friday’s hearing, the commission will draft a report that includes all the submitted testimony and consider passing it on to members of Congress and the president.