Free to Discriminate?

Does a creationist have the right to free speech? That’s the question we’ve been wondering about here at ILYBYGTH lately, ever since arch-creationist Ken Ham got bumped from a talk at the University of Central Oklahoma. News from state legislatures brings up another campus challenge: Do student groups have the right to discriminate?campus-protest-getty-640x480

First, the update, thanks to Donna: According to Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis organization, he has been re-invited to UCO. Apparently, Ham will talk on campus, then move to a nearby church for a Q&A.

Today, we’ve got an even trickier free-speech/free-assembly question to examine. Should student groups be forced to abide by university anti-discrimination rules? Even for their own leaders? Americans United for Separation of Church and State lists a burgeoning new crop of state laws that would force campuses to make exceptions.

In Virginia, for example, a state senate subcommittee unanimously approved a new bill that would allow student groups to discriminate in their leadership choices. Emphasis added below:

Establishes several provisions for the protection of expressive activity on the campus of each public institution of higher education, including (i) permitting any individual who wishes to engage in noncommercial expressive activity on campus to do so freely, as long as such expressive activity does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the public institution of higher education and (ii) prohibiting any public institution of higher education from (a) denying a student organization any benefit or privilege available to any other student organization, or otherwise discriminating against a student organization, on the basis of the expressive activity of the members of such organization or (b) restricting a student organization’s ability to require any leader or other member of such organization to affirm and adhere to the organization’s sincerely held beliefs, comply with the organization’s standards of conduct, or further the organization’s self-defined mission or purpose.

Why do some conservatives see the need for such bills? As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, evangelical groups on campus have been under fire for the past few years. Intervarsity, for example, has been derecognized on many campuses. Why? Because the group requires its leaders—not members, but leaders—to agree to its statement of belief. And that statement of belief includes traditional definitions of sexual morality.campus-free-speech-720

Conservative religious folks have long fretted about these definitions of discrimination and inclusion. Why can’t conservative evangelical student groups insist that their leaders share their ideas?

The rub comes once again with the question of university support. Speakers on campus are generally free to do whatever they want, short of issuing threats or starting riots. People can talk their heads off in public areas. There have been important exceptions, as when one professor physically attacked an anti-abortion speaker on the campus of UC-Santa Barbara. campus free speech berkely republicansIn Ken Ham’s case, he wasn’t merely speaking on campus. He was sponsored and promoted by the student government. Some student groups objected to university sponsorship of a speaker that they saw as beyond the pale of legitimate public speech.

Liberal critics make the same case against these student-group laws. In AU’s opinion, such laws are a travesty. As they put it,

Religious freedom is the right to believe—or not—as we see fit. It doesn’t include a right to discriminate—and especially not while using taxpayer dollars or using the tuition fees of the very students who are being excluded. Religious student groups, of course, still have First Amendment rights on campus. They have been able to access school facilities for their meetings and use school bulletin boards to advertise their events like any other group. But they don’t have the right to force public universities to subsidize discrimination. If student groups want to discriminate, they shouldn’t receive public university recognition, tuition fees, or state taxpayer money to do so.

What do you think? Should student groups be free to discriminate? Should public money support student groups that discriminate?

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  February 18, 2018

    I agree that groups that discriminate should not receive government funding or sponsorship of their activities — when “discrimination” is understood in my preferred way.

    The belief that homosexual sex is a sin (as are adultery and fornication) is an integral part of the Christian religion and has been for 2,000 years, notwithstanding that some Christians have begun capitulating to the culture in that regard since the onset of the Sexual Revolution (as some have also with regard to adultery and fornication).

    To say now that someone who believes homosexual sex is a sin, is guilty of discrimination, amounts to saying that all believing Christians who haven’t capitulated to the Sexual Revolution are guilty of discrimination — and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to speak on a public school campus. In other words, we have now disallowed and in some cases outlawed the traditional Christian faith, or at least the public expression thereof. Or, as you might say, we are now openly discriminating against Christians. So by all means, let’s defund or derecognize or withdraw accreditation from groups or schools that discriminate.

    It’s all about who gets to define “discrimination” isn’t it?

    • I agree that the key question is the definition of discrimination. I grant, too, that many of my progressive friends and colleagues tend to mis-use the term “discrimination,” either out of ignorance or design. I would point out, though, that we’re not talking about outlawing public expressions or speech on campus. The topic, it seems to me, can and should be more narrowly limited to funding and sponsorship.

      • Agellius

         /  February 19, 2018

        I understand, and probably I could have made my point more clearly. But I am speaking to funding and sponsorship (although maybe I’m not understanding what “sponsorship” is), which is why I spoke of groups that discriminate against Christians being defunded, de-recognized, etc.

        If groups that discriminate should be de-funded and de-recognized, then those who advocate for de-funding, etc. of Christian groups based on their moral beliefs, should also be defunded on the ground that *they* are discriminating; and any speaker that publicly criticizes Christians on that basis should be barred from being sponsored and promoted by the university or university-funded student groups on the ground of expressing discriminatory views.

        When unpopular viewpoints can be branded as illegitimate, it all just boils down to who has the power, or the majority. But if the majority in power can de-legitimize views they don’t like, then what’s the point of free speech?

        In historical terms, the majority opinion in favor of homosexual marriage was reached only very, very recently. As someone pointed out, President Obama himself expressed opposition to it prior to his second term. Has the topic been permanently closed off for discussion so soon?

        Was there a time before it became the majority view, when advocating *for* gay marriage was restricted? If so, was there a legitimate basis for that restriction, or would it have been a violation of free speech?

        It appears to me that when their views on sexual morality were unpopular, liberals were enthusiastically in favor of free speech for any and all views, including (or especially) those abhorrent to the majority. But now that they have scaled the ramparts, instead of opening wide the gates to all without discrimination, they are closing and locking the gates behind them. This is different, they say, since our restrictions are on behalf of freedom. Hmmm.

  2. Rob Hammaker

     /  February 19, 2018

    So what is the definition of discriminate and who gets to discern (synonym) what it constitutes? Don’t we all discriminate in some way? Definition 1: Recognize a distinction or differentiate. I realize, however, that the emphasis is on the 2nd definition: make an unjust or prejudicial distinction in the treatment of different categories or people. But again, don’t we all at some level? Holding to a different belief is different than treating with prejudice, isn’t it?

    I can believe something is wrong, but that doesn’t mean I am acting with prejudice against someone. If there is not a means by which a group can differentiate themselves from other groups based on beliefs, are not all groups simply the same? Would a science group that holds to evolution not expect their leaders not hold to “radical” creationism? I think there needs to be a difference between belief and action.

    This leads to a related issue of the change in meaning of the word, tolerance. It is been changed from “willingness to allow for disagreement” to “need for acceptance of a different perspective.” I can believe differently than someone and tolerate their different belief while at the same attempting to convince them of my belief without treating them with prejudice. However, people are quickly judged as discriminating and non-tolerant if they simply say they hold a different belief and don’t accept the other side as truth. People on both sides of current “controversial” issues should be careful with re-definitions as public opinion can always change away from your side and now you are the discriminator.

  3. Theh ACLU’s view that “Religious freedom is the right to believe—or not—as we see fit.” is incorrect. According to the Constitution, we have “the free exercise thereof.” I do not see how this isn’t the end of the discussion.

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