Why Universities Can’t Grant Religious Liberty

vanderbilt university.jpgFrom the site of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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.”

Creative Censorship

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.

Vanderbilt’s Campaign

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.


8 thoughts on “Why Universities Can’t Grant Religious Liberty

  1. No you may not. All Universities now have strict security and a valid student card is required to gain access. These resources are very expensive and are limited so need to be retained for students studying not Joe Boggs of the street. If you require a specialist book and live in the UK you can order it from the British library through you local library for a small fee. But being honest, I just finished at the University of Leeds, most libraries now are full of older out of date books because with the advent of the internet it is better to access up to date journal resources for most subjects and many books are out of date by the time they appear in print anyhow. Hope this helps.

  2. It is peculiar that institutions which once invoked the legal doctrine of in loco parentis to police the moral behavior of students living on campus have now abdicated any supervision over students’ sexual behavior, but insist they must prevent them from indulging in certain religious behavior, which is correlated with sexual restraint.
    At my own alma mater, a state university, a drama student was successful in resisting a professor’s requirement that she use language that was offensive enough that using it in an airport to a TSA agent would get you arrested. An article in the alumni magazine cluelessly summarized a faculty discussion about the new restrictions on faculty behavior that resulted. Nowhere in the faculty comments was there any recognition that students have any inherent dignity or independent rights that faculty members are obligated to be mindful of at any stage of the educational process.
    This leads me to an hypothesis for a unified theory of what many universities are doing: A secular faculty with an actively anti-theist ideology is actively encouraging sexual immorality in order to destroy students’ sense of having a relationship with a holy God, while it actively censors any efforts by students to create even minor private institutions on campus which might bolster student resistance to faculty indoctrination. The fraternities have been engines of moral breakdown instead of bolstering moral restraint for a long time, so are to be encouraged.

  3. How about giving up this superstitious veneration of universities? Most of what can be learned there that is worth learning can be better learned simply by reading.

  4. This is very much like the attempt by Protestants in the Nineteenth Century to use the public schools to forcibly convert Catholic immigrants to some kind of protestantism. The Catholic response was to build a parallel school system. Jews did likewise.
    Perhaps religious people should give up on secular universities and force nowadays secular schools like Notre Dame and Georgetown to return to their religious roots. Considering the unmitigated disaster that aggressively secular schools like Vanderbilt are, a Notre Dame that only admitted and hired believing, practicing Catholics and that insisted on mandatory chapel and religious instruction would be a breath of fresh air.

  5. This is a Civil Rights issue: the “All Comers” policy is effectively Jim Crow on religion, and it’s being used as a tool to suppress religious freedom on campus.
    The only alternative to this sort of ideological oppression is to fight back hard. Every campus that takes public funds, state or federal, needs to agree to respect Religious freedom without question, including elimination of any type of “all comers” policy that violates the integrity of religious associations who are by their nature allowed to choose their own members. Any institution that doesn’t follow the policy gets $0.00 from both state and federal.
    I’m really hoping that once we get change in Washington we’ll not only see this, but we’ll also see the Justice dept actually carry out justice on behalf of people of faith and aggressively investigate academic institutions that violate their civil rights.

  6. Was is no-one in Congress pushing codification of such State legislative initiatives on a national level?
    “Free exercise of religion” is a broad enough term that even (perish forbid) our serially abusive Court might understand Vanderbilt’s backhanded abuses are unacceptable in any free society worth the name.

  7. Among the ironies of the modern university such as Vanderbilt aspires to be is that the Western university is a child of religion, specifically the Catholic Church, and many of the oldest great universities began at monasteries.

  8. So do Muslim Student associations have to open themselves to Christian or Jewish leadership? Do Biology students have to open themselves to ‘intelligent design’ leadership? Do Physics Society students have to be open to flat earth leadership? We already know that Law Societies have to be open to criminal leadership, because where would we be without criminal defense attornies?

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