Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University

Imagine, for a moment, a loyal and true Democrat fundraising for the Republican National Committee. Or can you imagine an atheist student leading a prayer group on a college campus?

Since 2000, numerous attempts have been made to address this reality on college campuses, where student-led clubs are often required to allow students who do not agree with the club’s purpose or beliefs to be core members of that club. In other words, Republican clubs are required to let Democrats be their board members, and if an atheist student wants to lead a Christian prayer, the Christian club has to say yes.

The presence of these requirements — commonly known as “all-comers” policies — has been problematic for a number of reasons. Most notable is that they leave belief-based student clubs open to students who are hostile to their beliefs. They allow such students to flood a group’s membership and leadership, diluting and effectively silencing messages they disagree with. This is a particularly troubling issue for students and groups who support unpopular minority viewpoints.

Full enforcement of these policies is impractical at best because they forbid fraternities, sororities, and club sports teams from being gender-exclusive and campus political caucuses from being party-specific.

Such policies also fly in the face of students’ First Amendment rights.

Freedom of association was recognized by the Supreme Court in 1995, and later upheld in 2000. Without getting too deep in the weeds, this basically says discrimination by organized groups is OK in certain contexts, combining the Free Exercise and Free Assembly clauses of the First Amendment. This gives religious and activist groups the right to require their leaders and members to uphold a particular religion or philosophy and extends that right to student clubs by enshrining it in federal law.

Between 2000 and 2010, federal courts, attorneys, and legal advisors cited this right and repeatedly struck down all-comers policies for being unconstitutional. All was relatively well until the Supreme Court ruled on Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez.

This contentious 2010 case upheld an all-comers policy at UC Hastings School of Law. In doing so, it overturned 15 years of protections for student clubs with minority views, and put freedom of association at risk at colleges across the nation.

Two years later, Vanderbilt derecognized all student groups with faith-based leadership requirements, prompting outrage from Tennessee’s state legislature over infringed student rights. Then the California State system did the same, derecognizing belief-based student clubs on all 23 of its campuses in “a stinging blow to religious freedom.”

To make matters worse, Martinez has become weaponized against groups with minority views. Schools such as the University of Iowa and our very own UCCS have – in the last six months – cited Martinez, demanding that Christian and pro-life clubs accept all comers while allowing sororities and fraternities to be gender-exclusive and certain Muslim-based clubs to impose religious and national origin requirements.

This is a gross legal misapplication that borders on religious discrimination. It’s also a threat to all students passionate about a cause.

These days, it’s Christians, conservatives, anti-abortionists, and libertarians who face these restrictions on campuses. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, as many are predicting, it could just as easily be pro-choice advocates who take their place. Everybody is at the same risk.

With the vacancy in the Supreme Court likely to be filled by a conservative Justice, there’s a lot of focus on Roe v. Wade and whether that ruling will be overturned. But there’s also an opportunity to end all-comers policies on campuses for the benefit of all viewpoints and agendas.

Martinez misrepresents the purpose of student clubs and forces an inclusiveness that only hinders the robust discourse that universities are honor-bound to uphold. It’s become misconstrued by administrators and is being used to justify robbing students of constitutional rights. If it were overturned, advocates of all viewpoints could chalk up a win.

The Gazette editorial board

The Gazette editorial board


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