Universities and Religious Liberty

Not long ago, the university was seen as a world apart—an idyllic enclave where our studious youth learned the virtues of citizenship, cheered hard for the football team, and read the great classics of Western thought. The “ivory tower” was more an observation than the insult the term has become, an almost monastic reference to a place where thought was free and knowledge ruled.

Nostalgia, of course, is deceptive—life was rarely as good (or bad) as we remember. However, nearly everyone will agree that our universities have changed in the past four decades, educating millions on vast campuses that my friend Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has compared to “small European countries.”

As universities have grown in size, they have also grown in ambition. Most students are now aware of the concept of “university values,” an all-encompassing worldview that tells us men and women are exactly the same, that “diversity” is a paramount goal, and that one should tolerate everything except intolerance

Universities advance those values energetically by conducting orientation indoctrination sessions and diversity training, enforcing expansive rules governing student speech, and creating an alphabet soup of programs and centers serving different identity groups but pushing the same agenda.  The message is clear: Out with the old (your parents’ influence, your traditional religion, your intellectual independence); in with the new (sexual experimentation, group identification, and statist dependence).

Moreover, the university culture does not like competition. Observing the modern university at work, a biblical concept comes to mind. The book of Exodus describes God as “jealous,” commanding that His followers worship Him and only Him.  In fact the first of the Ten Commandments declares, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Similarly, the modern university is a jealous university with its own commandments, and you shall not put God before it.  For more than a generation, universities have sought to marginalize conservative or orthodox religious life.  In the 1980s, universities tried to keep religious groups from using empty classrooms. In the 1990s, universities tried to prevent religious groups from sharing in student funds. In both decades, speech codes intended to stifle expression that some students might find offensive were enacted at hundreds of universities across the United States.

Again and again, the Supreme Court stopped the universities in their tracks, ruling in favor of free speech and a marketplace of ideas.  Yet the universities were defiant. They not only refused to change their culture but also tried new and creative methods to accomplish the same censorious ends.  And it finally paid off.

In 2010 the Supreme Court—in a 5-4 decision in a case called CLS v. Martinez—held that a private Christian club on a public university campus did not have an absolute right to Christian leadership. In other words, it had to open itself up to potential Muslim, Hindu, or even atheist leadership if the university adopted and maintained an “all-comers” policy. 

Why did the Supreme Court reach that result? Why did it grant a state entity a degree of authority over a private religious organization that would have been previously unthinkable? For two reasons:  First, because it trusted the university.  The Martinez decision in many ways is an extended ode to the discretion of the professional educator. Second, the Court saw the Christian students’ quest to meet in empty classrooms and use community bulletin boards not as exercising a right (as the Court had previously described such activities) but as seeking a benefit from the state. 

Think about that for a moment.  Classrooms paid for in part through the students’ (and their families’) own tuition and tax dollars weren’t seen as theirs in any meaningful way—but instead belong to a government that may dispense access to groups whose form of governance it favors.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  In fields like counseling and social work, intrusive “curricular” guidelines are now requiring students to adopt leftist viewpoints regarding marriage, family, and sexuality as a condition for obtaining a degree and entering a profession.  In those cases, universities are saying that if a student wants the benefit of the education, he or she must comply with the university’s subjective requirements—even its ideological requirements. In other words, the rule isn’t “Christians need not apply” but “Christians are welcome so long as their beliefs are not traditionally Christian.” 

Is the very ability to get an education and pursue a career now a “government benefit” that can be doled out only to those with state-approved moral codes? That is the direction in which we’re heading.

In the state of Tennessee, a fascinating battle is developing between the legislature and Vanderbilt University, a private school. Vanderbilt receives hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal funds every year.  At the same time, it is waging an aggressive campaign against its own student religious organizations—trying to force them open to “all-comers” even as the university protects and maintains a fraternity and sorority system that is deeply discriminatory by design – discriminating not just on the basis of sex but also hardly taking “all comers” during the rush and pledge season.

In CLS v. Martinez, the Court made much of the fact that the Christian Legal Society was seeking a modest allocation of mandatory student fees.  If a few hundred dollars are all that it takes to shed your independence, then what about Vanderbilt’s few hundred million?

That’s exactly the point that more than twenty Tennessee legislators made to Vanderbilt in an April letter:

We acknowledge that private institutions such as Vanderbilt University have the freedom to establish its associations and maintain the integrity of its institutional mission. As such, the University has the right to adopt and apply an “all-comers” policy for student organizations. But the state has a right not to subsidize any part of the operations of those organizations, like Vanderbilt University, that engage in unequal treatment of individuals and organizations, the effect of which is religious discrimination. 

Representative Bill Dunn has proposed a bill of startling simplicity: Either Vanderbilt bites the bullet and imposes a true all-comers policy (something it will likely never do because of the immense power of fraternities and sororities on campus) or it respects religious liberty. Ironically, that would codify the requirements of CLS v. Martinez but apply those principles to a favored liberal institution.

To no one’s surprise, after spending the better part of a year squashing the autonomy of the religious groups on campus, the university is now fighting to maintain its own independence.

For generations, universities have sought to expand state power, confident in their autonomy and in the enduring power of their “university values.”  But what if “university values” are not state values? Legislation protecting religious liberty at public universities has been enacted in Ohio and is now proposed in Tennessee.   What if taxpayers decide that they no longer want to pour vast sums into institutions that reject and despise their values and traditions? 

The state, after all, is a jealous state.  And you shall not put “university values” before it.