A federal ruling last week in Iowa underscores a local concern: The University of Colorado may be violating the First Amendment rights of Christians at the Colorado Springs campus.
As explained in this column Jan. 30, four students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs recently filed a lawsuit in Denver’s U.S. District Court. The students claim university officials won’t recognize their group, which means it cannot tap student fees given to other groups.
The university insists the Christian organization allow atheists, or even those with extreme anti-Christian views, to lead the organization if they manage to get elected. Ratio Christi allows anyone to join. It does not allow just anyone to serve in leadership positions. To lead the group, one must agree with its values. The university claims their policy allows any student to join any club and hold any office in the club regardless of their beliefs, and that they enforce this policy evenly.
A Christian organization should have Christian leaders, just as vegans should lead vegan groups and socialists should lead socialist clubs.
If the university gets its way, the Christian organization can expect anti-Christian activists to join and elect leaders who are hostile to its beliefs.
If contentions in the lawsuit are remotely accurate, this is a case of unfair treatment applied to one group. Four pages of the lawsuit detail how the university does not enforce similar requirements on dozens of other student groups throughout the system that are recognized and funded with student fees.
The lawsuit talks about political organizations, quoting bylaws that state members must agree with the principles of the association. Socialists must be socialists, libertarians must be libertarians and conservatives must be conservatives.
The lawsuit quotes bylaws of an abortion rights group that requires members to support a woman’s right to choose. It quotes membership requirements of organizations formed around sexual orientation, which make clear members must support the values of the group and may not subscribe to religious views that counter them.
UCCS administrators may truly believe they treat all organizations the same, but one should question whether they could do so without running into absurd conflicts. Imagine forcing a group of devout, pro-Palestinian Muslims to accept as their president a militant Zionist who insists there is no Palestine.
Let’s hope the university never forces a transgender organization to accept 15 rednecks who organized to sign up and elect an anti-transgender bigot as president.
Freedom to associate means freedom to disassociate and federal courts typically rule that way.
That, in part, is why U.S. District Judge Stephanie M. Rose told the University of Iowa to stop discriminating against Christians in a ruling issued Feb. 6.
The university refused to recognize and fund Business Leaders in Christ. That group has a less sympathetic gripe than the UCCS club, because it does not let anyone join — much less lead — unless they agree to a statement of faith. The Iowa club’s statement includes a commitment to not have sex outside the marriage of a man and a woman.
The liberal Democratic judge, appointed by President Barack Obama, said the university unfairly discriminates against the conservative Christian group because it unevenly applies the policy. That is exactly the claim made by lawyers for the UCCS students and backed by the multiple documented examples.
“The Constitution does not tolerate the way defendants chose to enforce the human rights policy,” the Judge Rose ruling explains. “Particularly when free speech is involved, the uneven application of any policy risks the most exacting standard of judicial scrutiny, which the defendants have failed to withstand.”
“This victory reinforces the commonsense idea that universities can’t target religious groups for being religious,” said Business Leaders in Christ member Jake Estell, as quoted by The Des Moines Register.
UCCS should treat all students the same. That goes for conservatives, liberals, atheists, heterosexuals, homosexuals, transgendered, gun nuts, gun opponents, or those who organize around any other causes and lifestyles that compete in the free market of ideas and values. The way to accomplish that is to allow people to organize with those who share their values.
If the university does not treat all organizations with exacting standard applied to Ratio Christi — which seems unlikely, if possible — it should settle the lawsuit. Christians may not be in fashion on campus these days, but the law does not care.
The Gazette editorial board