Freedom of Association

Fire has out an excellent press release today on two universities that are actively restricting their students’ Freedom of Association. A quick summary:

The InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship (IVMECF), a Christian Group at Rutgers University, has been banned from using campus facilities and stripped of university funding because it selected its leadership on the basis of religious belief. In an identical situation, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) has threatened similar punishment for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF)�as well as for other Christian organizations at UNC�because it also used religion as a criterion in the selection of its leadership.

Constitutionally implied freedom of association brings with it the freedom to exclude, especially in recent years. In Roberts v. United States Jaycees (1984), the Supreme Court recognized the right of organizations to determine their membership using explicitly (and non-arbitrary) selective membership criteria. But in Rotary International v. Rotary Club of Duarte (1987), the Court limited its Roberts ruling: an organization’s exclusive membership criteria must be read in the context of the group’s mission.

As FIRE notes, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000) provides some precedent as well, in that it specifically grants groups freedom from the forced inclusion of members whose presence “affects in a significant way the group�s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints.”

Both groups in question now have open membership policies; that’s not the issue. The issue is actually narrow in light of precedent: does the First Amendment’s implied protection of selective criteria apply to groups with open memberships but restricted leaderships? The answer to this question necessarily applies to the policies of Rutgers and UNC, both state universities and so bound to uphold students’ constitutional rights.

The two groups’ specific, non-arbitrary or -incidental selection criteria and explicitly religious mission — plus, perhaps, the extent to which that’s tied up with protected religious practice — would seem to call for an extension of the Roberts and Duarte rulings.

Finally, it is worth considering the sort of double standard that policies of the sort pursued by Rutgers and UNC create in today’s university environment. Consider which sort of groups are the most exclusionary on university campuses. Speaking from my experiences at Dartmouth, groups with ethnic or sexual bases appear to be the worst offenders in terms of barring outsiders from their meetings and membership. A Dartmouth student need only look in the Women’s Resource Center (or whatever they’re calling it now) bulletin board to discover a vast array of events that he or she is explicitly barred from attending (unless the student in question is a bisexual, multi-ethnic hermaphrodite). While a student, I was asked to leave meetings of GLBTQAHGSODHG (yes, I made up those last few letters…probably) students, black students, and female students — sometimes even by representatives of the College — because my presence as straight white male was unwelcome. So be it. Rutgers (of which I have some first-hand knowledge) and UNC (admittedly, only second-hand) both support a myriad of such explicitly exclusionary groups. Groups that, unlike these InterVarsity Christian Fellowships under fire, don’t even allow open membership, let alone leadership.

Rutgers and UNC pursue a politically-based, entirely arbitrary, and utterly indefensible double standard borne of some malice to the practice of religion, specifically Christianity. It is fortunate that these schools, being public, may not infringe upon their students’ rights and that groups like FIRE are on the case when they inevitably do.