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Should Colleges De-Register Student Groups? (Part III of III)

Some thoughts on all-comers policies, with special attention to the situation at the University of Iowa. Part III (Part I and Part II here) 

September 27, 2018
 
 

I pick up here where I left off in my last piece: what is it about Evangelical groups and the particular exclusion of gay students that sets off alarm bells in the minds of college administrators, causing them to apply long-dormant all-comers policies?

          I think that some of this is very personal. There is an instinctive sympathy for gay students and the marginalization many have experienced, an instinct I find highly commendable.

          In my experience (based on visits to over a hundred campuses and attendance at literally dozens of conferences of college administrators) there is also an instinctive suspicion of Evangelical Christianity, which many college administrators associate principally with the marginalization of gay students and women. Indeed, many college administrators have spoken openly to me about their own negative personal experiences with conservative churches and how that’s influenced their general view of Evangelicals, including the students on their campuses.

I understand this but disagree with it. Of course, individuals have a right to their experience and their interpretation of it, but to harbor ill-will toward Christian student groups because of bad experiences in your hometown church seems unprofessional to me. Consider if a secular Muslim or culturally Hindu administrator cited anti-gay discrimination or sexism at a hometown mosque or temple (it’s not like such things never happen) for their derogatory treatment of the campus Muslim or Hindu group.

This leaves the best reason for the instinctive suspicion that many college administrators harbor toward Evangelical Christian groups: their power.

The logic goes like this. Conservative Christians are in the halls of power with both the penchant for and the ability to legislate discrimination against groups they do not like. Gay folks are at the top of that list.

This is not an unreasonable concern. Trump reportedly announced his ban of transgender individuals in the military after being urged to do so by a set of Evangelical Christians close to the White House .   

The question is what does this have to do with Evangelical student groups on campus? I think the logic of some college administrators is that the first year student from rural Tennessee playing guitar at the InterVarsity Bible study and Franklin Graham are all part of one big movement seeking to legislate conservative Christianity. What service to liberal democracy can the college administrator provide? He can prevent a foothold for this movement on campus.

This seems to me a tortured logic. A reasonable number of these Evangelical student groups are very small. Business Leaders in Christ at the University of Iowa reportedly had about 10 students. A similar group that Bowdoin College de-registered had about 25 active members.

Moreover, these groups are decidedly countercultural on most campuses, where a norm of hard partying and sexual permissiveness reign. Frankly, I have a ton of respect for students who are doing their best to remain square (I use the term with genuine love) in that environment.

Most importantly, none of the groups to my knowledge are doing anything close to seeking to legislate conservative Christianity in their college environment. In fact, they are building coalitions with individuals and groups with whom they disagree on the principle that everyone should have the freedom to express and associate as they wish – Muslims, Jews, atheists, gays, everyone, which includes Evangelical Christians. It is a right guaranteed by American law, and it is the genius behind our thriving civil society. Indeed religious groups have special protections under the Constitution, legislation like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Supreme Court decisions like Hosanna-Tabor, which allows faith communities the right to hire who they want (only male Catholic priests, for example) granting them a ‘ministerial exception’ to general hiring laws.

It should be noted that Supreme Court decisions are actually mixed on the subject of how much latitude religious groups should have to constitute themselves. In Christian Legal Society vs Martinez the Court said that the UC Hastings College of the Law could indeed withhold official student group status from an Evangelical organization for requiring students to hold to a ‘sex only within heterosexual marriage’ standard.

Clearly, these situations are challenging. 

There is one point that I want to take special care to emphasize: a key consequence of the debate around all-comers policies is that Evangelical Christian groups, in coalition with a diverse group of those with whom they theologically disagree, are advocating for freedom of association for everyone, rather than making a case for Christian conservatism to reign supreme. This is an illustration of our democracy’s strength, and I believe a signal of the good will of the Evangelical groups who are involved.

College administrators ought to be taking their cues from these interesting civic collaborations. As John Inazu writes in Confident Pluralism, administrative authorities (especially the government) ought to be protecting people’s differences – their rights to express, associate and assemble as they wish - especially when they go against majoritarian norms. He writes, “We cannot begin with the premise that the public forum is open to all groups and then start excluding those groups we don’t like.” 

At the very least, administrative authorities ought to exercise extreme caution when using coercive power against student groups. Not only are good general policies nearly impossible to come by, the concentration of power should put fear in the hearts of anyone who cares about liberal democracy. Once that sword is brought out against this group on that issue, it can too easily be brought ought again and again and again.

There are limits to this, of course. No university should allow a KKK group or a pro-pedophile group to stand. And there are very difficult cases, for example the Bob Jones decision where the Supreme Court found that it was constitutionally legal for the federal government to revoke the tax-exempt status of a private Christian college for its racist policy barring interracial dating. I agree with that decision, even though it was the federal government using coercive power against a private association, because I think the particular circumstances of 400 years of institutionalized racism demanded an exception to the general rule of identity-associations being allowed to constitute themselves.  

Are gay rights analogous to issues of racial equality? Although the system of slavery and segregation in the United States is sui generis, I think an argument can be made that there needs to be similar government/administrator intervention to root out homophobia and hetersexism.

I am instinctively sympathetic to this, but I worry that more harm than good is done in the process, especially because it grants administrative authorities too much power and uses a specific case to drive general policies with a host of negative affects, like requiring you to de-register student groups that you actually want to support.

We should instead define a diverse civil society as a place where people with different identities and deep disagreements can collectively flourish, respecting one another’s identities, building relationships across disagreements and cooperating where they can to serve the common good. The First Amendment of our Constitution with its protections of expression, association and assembly provides for this. The great Jesuit political philosopher John Courtney Murray called these provisions our “articles of peace”. In a similar vein, Inazu writes, “The protections of assembly are part of our mutual nonaggression pact. They extend to groups that we like and groups that we don’t like.”   

So how can college administrators who seek (as they should) to be supportive of gay students do more good than harm? Here’s my suggestion: Use your programmatic powers instead of your coercive ones. Help those students start religious groups that are gay friendly (virtually every liberal protestant denomination in the United States has a wing that is LGBT-affirming). Send them to conferences. Spend time talking to them. Find them mentors. Make it clear that you want them to thrive, but your basket has lots of carrots and very few sticks.

Interestingly, there are a number of gay individuals and groups who prefer it this way. In other words, who do not want administrative authorities to use coercive power to vanquish groups that they don’t like, even ones that exclude them. Listen to Jonathan Rauch in this video.

This makes perfect sense when you consider that not so long ago administrators tried to use their coercive powers to ban LGBT groups. In the early 1970s, the University of New Hampshire tried to shut down a gay student group. In 1974, a federal court ruled against the administrative authorities at the University, siding with the gay student group and affirming its rights to expression, assembly and association. Interestingly, such groups, according to law professor Dale Carpenter (quoted in Inazu’s book) “historically discriminated in membership based on sexual orientation … even groups that are not exclusively gay would resist having heterosexuals in leadership position.”

In other words, to maintain their understanding of their identity-association, they excluded others. This shouldn’t surprise anyone – it’s simply the way identity and affinity groups function.

It also raises this uncomfortable possibility: an administrator who, on one day, applies an all-comers policy to force an Evangelical group to include a gay student in leadership might the next day find herself, because of that same policy, forcing the LGBT group to accept leaders it believes are inconsistent with its mission.

I’ll end with this: as Inazu notes in his book, the phrase confident pluralism actually comes from a gay rights group that came out against all-comers policies. They might not have liked the religious groups that excluded people in their community, but they preferred to engage them in dialogue in the public square rather than have administrative authorities use coercive powers. Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty (whose mission is the “tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals among members of the wider society”) filed a legal brief which stated: “the First Amendment envisions a … confident pluralism that conduces to civil peace and advances democratic consensus-building.”

There is no better place for that to be embodied than on a college campus.

 

 

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