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?