UNC-Chapel Hill Freezes Funds, Revokes Recognition of Christian Student Group

RALEIGH — For the second time in as many years, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill stands accused of discrimination against a Christian student group.

In December 2002, UNC-CH threatened to withdraw official recognition and benefits from the student group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and other Christian student organizations, based upon the groups’ desire that their leadership adhere to the group’s religious beliefs, which UNC-CH argued ran afoul of its policy of nondiscrimination. National public outcry and the threat of a lawsuit prompted Chancellor James Moeser to issue a statement expressing UNC-CH’s “wish to uphold and principles of freedom of expression” and his request to his staff “to allow IVCF to continue to operate as an officially recognized student organization.”

Now UNC-CH has derecognized to the Alpha Iota Christian fraternity (AIO), freezing its university account and web access and denying the group the ability to reserve space on campus, apply for funding from student fees, or make use of other privileges granted officially recognized student groups. UNC-CH furthermore did not notify AIO of the revocation of its official status. UNC-CH derecognized AIO because the Christian student group sought to limit its membership to Christians. UNC-CH canceled the group’s account despite the fact that the group had not received student fees, but had raised its own funds.

Tension between constitutional rights?

In fall 2003, Jonathan Curtis, UNC-CH’s assistant director for student activities and organizations, informed AIO president Sergun Olagunju that the group faced derecognition if it would not agree to a university clause in the application form that prohibits the group from using religious affiliation as a criterion for membership. The mission of AIO, which has been an officially recognized student group since 1999, is “to train Christian leaders … by upholding the Bible’s true standard of righteousness,” AIO members believed the clause would interfere with the group’s right to maintain its character and mission. Olangunju therefore asked Curtis if he could submit an addendum objecting to the clause along with the application but was rebuffed. Specifically, AIO was told that the university would haul the group before the Honor Court if it submitted an application that it did not intend to abide by fully.

AIO therefore chose not to submit the application with the nondiscrimination clause, but asked Curtis for an explanation in writing for the Honor Court threat. Having never received an explanation, AIO was surprised to find, in late December, that their web access had been removed. Curtis informed them in February 2004 that the group had been derecognized. In March, AIO was prevented from conducting a transaction through the Student Activities Fund Office, because Curtis had instructed the SAFO to cancel AIO’s account. AIO did not receive money from mandatory student fees; the group had raised its own funds.

Curtis is the same administrator who had threatened IVCF and other Christian groups with derecognition in 2002. This reporter sought his comments for this report, but as of press time he has not responded.

AIO took their complaint to the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, which describes itself as “a nonprofit educational foundation devoted to free speech, individual liberty, religious freedom, the rights of conscience, legal equality, due process, and academic freedom on our nation’s campuses.” FIRE is the same organization that supported the IVCF against UNC-CH and Curtis’ machinations in 2002.

FIRE President David French said UNC-CH’s actions were “particularly disappointing” since “[u]nlike some university administrations, UNC’s leadership — because of its actions less than two years ago — is intimately familiar with the constitutional rights of religious students. UNC lacks any excuse for its shameful actions.”

Moeser responded to FIRE’s charge by arguing that UNC “must balance the constitutionally mandated freedom of association (provided in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution) with constitutionally required protection against discrimination (found in both the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution).” In order for a student group to be officially recognized, Moeser wrote, the group must “agree to abide by the [u]niversity’s nondiscrimination policy by allowing membership and participation without regard to age, race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sex, or sexual orientation.”

Under this policy, Moeser explained, “Baptist student groups are open to Presbyterian students; Jewish student groups are open to Christian students; the Italian Club is open to Korean students; and the Black Student Movement is open to white students.”

French retorted, “A Christian group has the right to be Christian, a Muslim group has the right to be Muslim, and a Jewish group has the right to be Jewish. It seems absurd that anyone in a free society would have to make this argument, but time and time again FIRE has had to fight for this constitutional right at universities.”

N.C. Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) wrote to Moeser August 13 to urge UNC-CH to rethink its decision against AIO. Arguing that each student group “has the right to determine for itself the membership of its organization,” Moore wrote that “[a] Christian group has every right to extend membership to only other Christians, so to does a group of chess players have every right to limit membership to only those interested in playing chess.” Moore wrote that “saying that a group must welcome members who do not follow the group’s purpose is unconstitutional and is a violation of that group’s right to associate with whom they may please.”

Moeser wrote that “[t]here is sometimes a tension between the First Amendment to the Constitution and the equal protection provisions in the Fourteenth Amendment.” Because the U.S. Supreme Court “has not yet addressed this issue in the context of student groups at public universities,” Moeser wrote, “all public universities must strive to balance constitutional rights and protections,” and UNC-CH believes it has struck the “proper balance.”

Moore argued, however, that the Supreme Court had sufficiently addressed the issue. “In arguing the case of whether or not the Boy Scouts of America can restrict its membership to those who subscribe to its creed, the court affirmed that an organization has the right to determine membership opportunities,” Moore wrote. “I see no difference in the Boy Scouts wanting to organize with like-minded individuals than Alpha Iota Omega wanting to extend membership to other Christian students.”

In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), the Court had ruled that “forced inclusion of an unwanted person infringes upon the group’s freedom of expressive association if the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints.”

Discrimination without a paper trail

UNC-Wilmington criminal justice professor Mike Adams wrote about AIO’s derecognition by UNC-CH in his TownHall.com column. It “was accomplished without leaving a paper trail,” Adams wrote, wrily noting that “college administrators often try to do things in private that they could never defend in public.”

Comparing UNC-CH’s actions in 2002 with that of 2004, Adams wrote, “UNC once trashed religious liberty in the name of diversity. Now the university trashes both religious liberty and due process in the name of diversity.”

UNC-CH set up a web page concerning the issue, and on it the university released a letter that Jimmy Satterwhite, “one of the leaders of the Episcopal Campus Ministry here at UNC,” wrote to Adams in response to his column. Satterwhite said UNC-CH’s action against AIO “seemed justified” since “[d]iscrimination may be the reason” for it.

“Students on this campus have the right to form an exclusive group, but it would be wrong for the University to help them do so,” Satterwhite wrote. “I happen to be a member of an exclusive group, but we would never imagine asking the University for funding or recognition. That would clearly be a ridiculous request! Taking part of everyone’s money to fund a group that won’t allow an entire group of people atheists for example) to join just seems wrong.”

Moeser wrote that UNC-CH’s recognition process would permit these membership rules: a group such as AIO “can require members to have an interest in the subject matter of the organization and support its work [e.g., ‘I affirm that I am joining the College Republicans because I have an interest in learning more about the organization and because I support its objectives’]”, or it “may require apprentice members to pass an objective test on the subject matter with which the organization is concerned in order to become a full member”; or if its “activities center around a core of beliefs,” it “may require that its officers subscribe to the tenets of the organization.”

French said that those exceptions Moeser stated are not to be found anywhere in the actual policy books or the application that student groups must submit. French said it’s obvious that “the value the university seeks to protect isn’t so much the inclusion as exclusion of groups that don’t toe the line” regarding its nondiscrimination policy. “The university’s entire recognition system exists as a vehicle for enforcing its nondiscrimination policy,” French said. “That is not viewpoint neutral.”