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Gazette Premium Content EDITORIAL: College faith groups need religious liberty protection

The Gazette editorial Published: February 23, 2014

Bob the Baptist minister believes marriage consists of one man and one woman. A graduate student at the University of Colorado, Bob joins a campus group established to promote interests of lesbians and gays. The group's pro-gay bylaws offend Bob, especially the part that says group leaders must pledge support of the group's values.

Bob files a discrimination complaint with the university, claiming the pro-gay statement discriminates against Baptist ministers. Administrators pull the group's charter and close its campus office, claiming it violated the university's nondiscrimination rules.

This fictional tale is absurd. No one forced Bob to join the club. Furthermore, this country was founded to defend a free market of values and the freedom of individuals to associate and disassociate with one another. Campus administration would justifiably protect the group's right to uphold its charter and defend its pro-gay values.

Here's the shocking part. Reverse the conflict and our fictional tale becomes real, with a different ending.

At the University of Colorado-Boulder, and on other campuses, students occasionally join campus-based religious groups only to gripe about their values. The trend has become so threatening that Republican Rep. Kevin Priola, a graduate of CU-Boulder, introduced a bill to protect the practice of religious groups enforcing their charters.

Yvonne Williams, founder of CU-Boulder's Real Choices - an organization that advocates abortion alternatives - testified that a student joined the group only to complain about its mission. The new member filed a discrimination complaint, arguing the group's rules discriminate against members who aspire to leadership with opposing views. Amazingly, Williams testified, university officials withheld recognition of the group. The university backed down when push came to shove.

Priola crafted his bill after CU administrators ousted a religious group from its campus office last year because the organization's bylaws required officers to embrace religious principles. Officials reinstated the group after a credible threat of legal action.

"These things are happening all over the country, and it's only to decommission groups that are religious," said Brian Walsh, executive director of the Ethics & Public Policy Center's American Religious Freedom Program in Washington, who testified at the hearing.

David Hacker, senior legal counsel for the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, agreed. He said universities are demanding religious groups accept students who surreptitiously rise to positions of authority only to challenge a group's core principles.

Large majorities in the Tennessee Legislature favored a bill last year that prohibited Vanderbilt University from interfering with religious groups that require leaders to sign faith statements. Known as the "All Comers" bill, the legislation told Vanderbilt to respect bylaws of religious groups or lose $24 million in state funding. Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed the bill.

"Religious groups are the targets," Hacker said after the Colorado hearing. "We don't see colleges going after environmental groups. . Suppose someone joins an environmental group, advances to a leadership position and then advocates unregulated fracking. The university would understand if the group replaced that person. The same level of tolerance doesn't apply if the core values are religious."

During the hours-long hearing, opponents of Priola's bill made clear their conviction that opposition to same-sex marriage deserves no protection, even in the name of religious liberty.

"We're concerned it would grant license to student groups to discriminate against anyone on a basis of sincerely held beliefs," said a representative of CU-Boulder's Chancellor's Standing Committee on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues.

"Would you find it agreeable if a straight Baptist minister became the head of a campus LGBT group?" asked Priola.

"Absolutely," the student assured. "So long as his values didn't conflict."

He abruptly stopped talking, realizing where this had led. The LGBT spokesman inadvertently confessed a need to discriminate against a Baptist minister with conflicting values. If the same can't apply to religious organizations - if they cannot defend their values from internal assault - we mock freedom of speech and religion at state institutions. We allow state authorities to protect modern morality while facilitating wanton destruction of its religious counterpart.

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