Religious Freedom on Campus Under Attack
Mark Scott knew that starting a campus ministry would be a tough project at Montclair State University, the second-largest public college in New Jersey. The campus had a reputation for being sarcastic and caustic concerning spiritual things.
But rather than fail to attract interest from students, the staff member with Campus Crusade for Christ faced a different kind of hurdle: the student government.
They denied Campus Crusade status as a student group, citing concerns about the group's leadership, their views on homosexuality and the negative connotations of the word "Crusade." As a result, student government said that Mark and others with Campus Crusade couldn't advertise, seek membership, have an office or hold meetings on campus.
"Because we weren't recognized, we were completely cut off," says Mark. "We weren't able to function at all on campus."
Across the country, there has been increased pressure on college campuses to quiet Christians about their beliefs. The challenges come on many fronts -- restrictions on evangelism, "speech codes" (rules about what to say about sensitive topics like religion or sexual preference), and about the teaching of evolution as the only acceptable view in science classes.
But the latest trend, like at Montclair, threatens Christian groups' very existence on campus.
After nearly two years of runaround and red tape, Mark contacted Dennis Kasper, general counsel for Campus Crusade, who approached the university. "Religious groups are entitled the same rights as any registered group on campus," attorney Kasper says. By quieting Christians simply because of their beliefs, every person's freedom of speech is threatened.
Yet Christian groups around the nation have been asked to compromise their mission in order to stay on campus.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Christian fraternity was recently denied recognition because it would not agree to open its membership to students of different faiths.
Because the mission of Alpha Iota Omega is to train Christian leaders, lawyers for the fraternity say UNC's action violated the fraternity's rights to freedom of association, freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.
"They are saying that you can't use religion as the reason for how you select the officers or leaders," says Jordon Lorence, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit Christian legal group.
Attorney Lorence points out that a vegetarian group on campus holds similar membership requirements, and logically so. "In order to be part of the club, you have to agree that vegetarianism is good and eating meat is bad," he says. "If they find out that you go home and secretly eat pork chops and Big Macs, they'll kick you out."
Likewise, the argument against the fraternity is illogical, he says. "They are saying the gospel itself can get you kicked off campus."
At Rutgers, the largest university in New Jersey, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship got the boot because they wouldn't open up their leadership to non-Christians. Eventually IVCF threatened to sue, and the university reinstated them.
"We have had more challenges to our basic right to exist on campus settings during the past two years than in the previous 55 combined," said former IVCF president Steven Hayner in an article on lifeway.com.
Attorney Lorence says the problem stems from a growing obsession with "diversity." The commitment is so extreme that it sometimes tramples rights and freedoms, he says.
According to David French, president of The Fire (a public advocacy group), Christian groups are considered "religious" whereas Muslim or Hindu groups are considered "cultural." As a result, the bulk of legal problems fall on the Christians, he says.
At the University of Washington in 1994, Campus Crusade came under fire during gay-pride week.
They hosted an informational table on campus, where one student approached them and asked a number of questions about Christians' beliefs, including about abortion and welfare. At one point he also asked, "Would you allow a gay student to be a leader in your organization?"
A Campus Crusade student leader politely answered that, because of biblical standards, anyone living a sinful lifestyle of any kind would not be qualified for leadership.
The next day, the student newspaper ran a lengthy, front-page article with the headline: "Christian group won't allow gay students to be leaders." Later, a few professors even wrote guest columns asking that Campus Crusade be kicked off campus.
As a result of the attention, many students stopped coming to the meetings. "[Because of all the negative publicity,] a lot of students didn't want to be associated with Campus Crusade anymore," says Brian Ricci, who has been a staff member at UW for 21 years. "But it really increased the faith of the ones who stayed."
Not too long after, the administration tried to not only make the Campus Crusade student group sign a statement saying they'd allow homosexuals in their leadership, but also said they could not discriminate based on religious beliefs. That's when Brian called Dennis Kasper, who helped resolve the issue.
"Lately things have been pretty quiet," says Brian. "But I'm waiting to see what's over the next hill."
Most of the time, disputes arise on campus because people don't understand the law, says attorney Kasper. So far, Campus Crusade has been fortunate; all incidents have been settled outside the courtroom.
Brian says it is crucial that believers handle the confrontations in a Christlike way. "Who knows? The people you go up against may be the very people you need to share the gospel with," Brian says.
But there's a balance, he warns. You need to know your rights, and act if a dispute goes too far. "We finally decided to take legal action when the gospel was being stopped," Brian says.
Back at Montclair, Mark Scott's action caused the university to overrule the student government's decision, approving Campus Crusade as a student group. This fall Campus Crusade held its first meetings there, and student attendance jumped from two people to 12 -- a promising start for the year. As for the future, "I have high hopes," says Mark.
Know Your Rights
Across the country, religious rights on the college campus can vary significantly. "We have to evaluate each college and its location to determine the scope of those rights," says Dennis Kasper, general counsel for Campus Crusade for Christ.
For example, there are significant differences between private and public schools, he says: "Public schools are subject to all of the constitutional rights guaranteed by the U.S.
Constitution and the constitutions of the states where they are located. But private colleges, depending upon the state where they are located, are not."
Nonetheless, it pays to know your rights. For free legal advice call the Alliance Defense Fund at 1-800-TELL-ADF. This legal alliance, founded in 1993 by five Christian ministry leaders including Bill Bright, aggressively defends religious liberty (Campus Crusade workers should contact the general counsel's office).