Not a week goes by, it seems, without another story of a public school or university discriminating against Christian clubs on campus. The facts never seem to vary. First, a Christian club’s constitution or bylaws allow anyone to join, but require its leaders to actually be, well, Christians. Second, the school administration (or delegated student leadership body) denies the club “official” status – and the perks that follow, such as sharing in student activity fees and using school facilities and communication channels, all necessary to sharing its message with the student body. Third, the university is typically exposed as allowing other favored clubs to require their leaders to share the same beliefs as the club’s mission, a privilege it suspiciously seems to deny only to Christian clubs.
This disparate treatment means the school is exercising what the law calls “unbridled discretion” to treat various ideas, speech, associations and expressions differently. The ultimate result is what is called “viewpoint discrimination.”
That’s an automatic red flag under the First Amendment.
The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is exhibiting the latest example of this behavior. Citing the rules for student organizations regarding leadership, UCCS denied official status (what it calls “registered status”) to a student religious organization, Ratio Christi, whose mission is to defend the gospel message through Christian apologetics. The group exists to engage the college community with the proposition that Christianity is a defensible belief.
The University apparently allows other student groups to require their leaders to affirm the principles or ideology behind their organizations. But not Ratio Christi.
Enter Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the public interest law firm that specializes in defending religious freedom. They are representing the UCCS chapter of Ratio Christi in a federal lawsuit aimed at ending the University’s discriminatory treatment of religion.
Travis Barham is a lawyer with ADF. “Like any other student group at a public university, religious student organizations should be free to choose their leaders without the government meddling,” says Barham. “It would be absurd for the university to require the vegan student group to appoint a meat-lover as its president. Likewise, the University of Colorado shouldn’t force Christian students to let atheists or other non-Christians to lead their Bible studies in order to become a registered club.”
If UCCS is indeed treating favored student clubs differently than Ratio Christi, this lawsuit won’t last long. They will likely settle quickly and revise their policies so that all student clubs are treated the same. That’s been the result in almost 100% of the cases that have come up with similar facts over the years.
And then we’ll wait a couple weeks before hearing of yet another university discriminating against another Christian club. This is a First Amendment lesson that educational institutions never seem to learn.