Victory for Religious Freedom at Ohio State

By October 4, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio, October 4, 2004—The Ohio State University has agreed to change a “nondiscrimination” policy that prohibited religious student organizations from making critical decisions based on religious criteria. The decision came a few weeks after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to Ohio State on behalf of a broad interfaith coalition of Muslim and Christian student organizations that felt that the policy interfered with the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious freedom and free association. FIRE’s effort coincided with that of the Christian Legal Society (CLS), which had already filed a lawsuit asserting the same claims against Ohio State.

“Ohio State’s decision is a clear blow to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and to other public colleges and universities that continue to use the language of ‘nondiscrimination’ to restrict the fundamental freedoms of religious students,” remarked FIRE President David French. “FIRE applauds Ohio State’s decision, and its clear statement in favor of individual rights will have many positive repercussions for freedom on our nation’s campuses.”

The coalition of religious groups, including the Muslim Student Association, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Christian Graduate Student Alliance, Campus Crusade for Christ, Mosaic, Reformed Christian Students, the Christian Medical Dental Association, Student Christian Fellowship, and International Friendships, used religious criteria for decisions regarding group leadership, group message, and, sometimes, group membership. Ohio State’s official recognition policy had stated that in order for groups to receive full recognition from the university, they could not “discriminate” on the basis of religion.

FIRE wrote to Ohio State President Karen A. Holbrook, pointing out that as a public institution, “Ohio State cannot constitutionally control a religious student organization’s message or composition,” and that “[n]o federal, state, local, or university statute, policy, or regulation can trump the exercise of First Amendment rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”

“A Muslim organization has a right to be Muslim. A Jewish organization has a right to be Jewish. A Christian organization has a right to be Christian. It is not tolerance but intolerance to forbid such voluntary associations,” commented Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. He continued, “Groups whose purpose is to communicate a religious message must be allowed to control that message without unconstitutional administrative interference.”

Religious freedom on our nation’s campuses recently received another boost through a letter from Kenneth Marcus of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Many public universities, such as UNC-Chapel Hill, which recently “de-recognized” a Christian fraternity and was subsequently sued by the Alliance Defense Fund, have claimed that federal laws under OCR’s jurisdiction such as Title IX and Title VI (which prohibit discrimination in higher education on the basis of sex and race) require them to adopt and enforce “nondiscrimination” codes that effectively discriminate against religious students. OCR’s letter demolishes that claim, flatly stating that “[n]o OCR policy should be construed to permit, much less to require, any form of religious discrimination or any encroachment upon the free exercise of religion.”  Read about FIRE’s efforts to defend religious freedom at UNC and at other campuses across the nation at www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws/religiousliberty.

Greg Baylor, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom, hailed the university’s decision as a victory for the First Amendment, saying, “While it is unfortunate that we had to file a lawsuit to vindicate the rights of Ohio State’s religious students, we are elated by the university’s decision and look forward to the institution of a policy that protects equal rights and allows religious organizations to express their own unique message.”

“This is an important moment in the battle for religious liberty and free association on campus,” noted FIRE’s French. “Following victories at Tufts, Rutgers, Purdue, and elsewhere, another of America’s leading public universities has recognized that both common sense and the Constitution dictate that religious organizations must be permitted to make decisions using religious principles.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Ohio State and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws.

CONTACT:
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; david.french@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws
Greg Baylor, Director, Center for Law and Religious Freedom, Christian Legal Society: 703-642-1070; gbaylor@clsnet.org
Karen A. Holbrook, President, The Ohio State University: 614-292-2424; holbrook.79@osu.edu

Schools: The Ohio State University Cases: The Ohio State University: Refusal to Allow Religious Clubs to Decide Membership Based on Religious Belief