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THE TRENCHES by A.W.R. Hawkins

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Can an Atheist Join a Christian Campus Fellowship?

by A. W. R. Hawkins

Apparently so, if trends at several U.S. universities are any indication. For example, a policy at Vanderbilt University that prohibits "discrimination on its campus against anyone because of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression" is being used to discriminate against religious groups. According to an online article in the Christian Post,1 at least four "Christian student organizations at Vanderbilt have been put on 'provisional status' for saying that the leaders of each of their respective groups are required to submit to their group's religious beliefs." Vanderbilt's Office of Religious Life emailed one group, the Christian Legal Society, to say that it was not allowed to "preclude someone from a leadership position based on ­religious belief. Only performance-based criteria may be used."

In other words, a nondiscrimination policy that was originally put in place to prevent discrimination by the school is now being used to disallow campus-recognized religious groups from distinguishing between practitioners and non-practitioners of their religion when choosing leaders.

At San Diego State University, although the policy against discriminating in membership or leadership on the basis of "race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability" exempts all "social fraternities or sororities" from the prohibition on gender discrimination, and allows non-religious groups to require their members and leaders to adhere to their beliefs, the school recently denied official campus-recognized status to Alpha Delta Chi (ADX), a Christian sorority, and to Alpha Gamma Omega (AGO), a Christian Fraternity.

Why the denials? Because both of these groups share a requirement that their members and officers adhere to specific religious beliefs, namely, those of Christianity.

Since ADX and AGO can technically still meet (can still exist) without official recognition as an ­on-­campus student group, some may think that this is not such a big issue. However, the lack of official recognition means that neither ADX nor AGO can access the channels of communication used by other student groups to promote their views and invite new members. It also means that they can only exist informally. They are effectively segregated from normal communal aspects of campus life.

Undercut from Without & Within

If Christian groups are prevented from choosing their own members and leaders, or from ensuring that they practice what they preach, they will have a hard time remaining effectively Christian. Thus, when nondiscrimination policies are applied as Vanderbilt and San Diego State have applied theirs, the policies become a means of undercutting or eliminating official on-campus Christian groups altogether.

Moreover, applying policies in this way plays directly into the hands of radical, non-Christian students who are more than willing to join a Christian group simply for the opportunity to seek a leadership position and gut the group from within. If they get the leadership position, they succeed; and if they don't get it, they can complain about discrimination and have the group expunged—which means they still succeed.

Apart from winning the lawsuits that have been filed to have these policy misapplications corrected, perhaps the only way to end this obvious discrimination against campus Christian groups will be to turn the tables: that is, for a Christian to seek (and be denied) a leadership position in an atheist group on a campus somewhere.

But regardless of the approach taken, we must remember that all students have a God-given right to freedom of speech, of religion, and of association. These rights are not up for a popular vote, nor are they such as can be given or whimsically taken away by chancellors, deans, and boards of regents.

These fundamental rights are at risk when the misapplication of policies like those at Vanderbilt and San Diego State go unchecked. 

1. Jeff Shapiro, "Vanderbilt's Nondiscrimination Policy May Discriminate Against Religious Groups" (September 28, 2011).

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