Two recent stories involving major U.S. colleges reveal the truth that as Christians, we will encounter trials and opposition to our message in this world. But they also highlight the advantages of living in a country where the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and the First Amendment are taken seriously.
Oral Roberts University (ORU) is a private university founded and operated on Christian beliefs, including policies and statements of faith that affirm God’s design for marriage and human sexuality. The university currently has approximately 4,000 students.
ORU is also a member of the NCAA, which is currently in the midst of its annual “March Madness,” otherwise known as the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. ORU, a number 15 seed in the tourney, just recently made headlines as it upset number 2 seed Ohio State. For college basketball fans, upsets are what make March Madness compelling viewing, and when a small school like ORU upsets a huge school like Ohio State, with approximately 54,000 undergraduates, well, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Except, apparently, for USA Today, which has taken the opportunity, given by ORU’s sudden notoriety, to condemn Christianity and recommend that ORU be banned from the NCAA. Hemal Jhaveri, the social media editor for USA Today Sports, has written a column entitled “Oral Roberts University isn’t the feel good March Madness story we need,” which aptly illustrates the current state of the mainstream media’s intolerance of the Christian faith.
“Part of the joy of March Madness has always been watching smaller schools upset powerhouse programs, as kids from regional, unknown colleges and universities get their moment in the sun, Ms. Jhaveri writes. “Because everyone loves an underdog, Oral Roberts has become a fan favorite as people take their improbable run to heart and celebrate the tiny, evangelical university in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“And yet, as the spotlight grows on Oral Roberts and it reaps the good will, publicity and revenue of a national title run, the university’s deeply bigoted anti-LGBTQ+ polices can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.
“Founded by televangelist Oral Roberts in 1963, the Christian school upholds the values and beliefs of its fundamentalist namesake, making it not just a relic of the past, but wholly incompatible with the NCAA’s own stated values of equality and inclusion.”
Jhaveri goes on to highlight standards of behavior and the code of conduct found in ORU’s student handbook. The provision she takes most offense at is the prohibition of sexual promiscuity, which includes homosexual behavior. For that, she thinks the university should not be allowed to participate in NCAA events.
“That Oral Roberts wants to keep its students tied to toxic notions of fundamentalism that fetishize chastity, abstinence and absurd hemlines is a larger cultural issue that can be debated. What is not up for debate however is their anti-LGBTQ+ stance, which is nothing short of discriminatory and should expressly be condemned by the NCAA,” she writes.
The rest of Ms. Jhaveri’s column continues along those same rhetorical lines.
Both USA Today and the NCAA are private companies/organizations, and if they want to express their distaste for Christianity or ban colleges from intercollegiate sports, that’s their constitutional right.
However, when the government or its employees get involved in treating religious groups in a discriminatory way, that’s when the rules change in favor of believers. That’s what happened when the University of Iowa de-registered a student Christian club, Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), over the club’s statement of faith required for its leaders.
BLinC was an existing, officially recognized campus club in 2017 when it denied an openly gay student a leadership position after he refused to abide by BLinC’s statement of faith, which included a provision about sex being reserved for a man and woman in marriage. He then filed a complaint against the club with school officials for allegedly violating the university’s Human Rights Policy. The school then revoked BLinC’s official status.
The problem was, however, that the university allowed other, secular clubs to select members and leaders in accordance with their organizational beliefs, practices which clearly violated the school’s policy as well.
Although the saga lasted for several years with a few factual twists and turns, in the end the federal courts not only found the University of Iowa had violated BLinC’s First Amendment rights, but that the administration officials involved in the discriminatory treatment of the club were personally liable for those violations.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently heard and decided the case, ruled that the constitutional principles the university should have abided by were “clearly established” by many court decisions, including those of the U.S. Supreme Court. Therefore, the appeals court held, the school’s administrators could not claim they were acting in good faith, which typically shields government officials from personal liability according to a legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity.”
Judge Jonathan A. Kobes’ concurring opinion says it best.
“The law is clear: state organizations may not target religious groups for differential treatment or withhold an otherwise available benefit solely because they are religious,” Judge Kobes wrote. That is what happened here. The individual defendants may pick their poison: they are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution. Either way, they should not get qualified immunity.”
As Christians, we are used to being despised and rejected. After all, Jesus warned us to expect it but not to take it personally. Luke 20:16 (ESV) states, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” We’re going to experience hostility to the gospel message in the public square, and perhaps increasingly so. Thankfully, however, the temptation to use government as a tool to impose sanctions on people and organizations who profess a belief in Jesus Christ continues to be checked by the courts.
And we have our Founding Fathers and the First Amendment to thank for that.
Photo from Robert Goddin/REUTERS