Limited Victory for Christian Fraternity

Federal judge makes clear that Chapel Hill must continue to recognize organization, but dismisses suit against university.
May 8, 2006

The latest in a series of federal court rulings on the rights of Christian groups at public universities to discriminate has all sides claiming victory -- and many expecting more litigation.

Judge Frank W. Bullock Jr. on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit by a Christian fraternity against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In doing so, he rejected the idea that the university needed to have more court guidance on its treatment of the fraternity. But while turning aside that request, he did so in large part because the university -- following an earlier court order in the case -- had clarified its anti-bias policy in a way that has allowed the fraternity to be recognized, even though it openly discriminates against people who do not embrace its Christian philosophy, which among other things takes an anti-gay stance.

The ruling in the Chapel Hill case comes at a time of growing debate over a conflict between the rights of religious groups at public colleges to adhere to their views and the right of colleges to bar discrimination. Last month, a federal judge ruled that the University of California's Hastings College of Law could deny recognition to a student group that requires members to be Christian and that bars students who engage in “unrepentant homosexual conduct” -- limits that violate the anti-bias policy at Hastings. But last year, in a case involving Southern Illinois University, a federal appeals court issued an injunction that permitted a similar group to gain recognition.

Several Christian legal groups are currently in the process of fighting anti-bias rules at public universities that may limit the rights of Christians to discriminate against those who don't share their beliefs -- and looking for plaintiffs to challenge those policies. In the Hastings case, for example, the Christian legal group that sued originally was nondiscriminatory and eligible for recognition, but agreed to change its policies to discriminate -- and then to sue.

The fraternity in the Chapel Hill case is Alpha Iota Omega, which was founded in 1999. The fraternity for several years enjoyed recognition, entitling it to access to certain campus facilities and to apply for some financial support (although it never did so). To be recognized, student groups must agree to abide by the university's anti-bias rules. But in 2003, the fraternity told the university that it could no longer abide by the parts of Chapel Hill's policies that would require it to treat equally those who aren't Christian and who do not believe that sex is appropriate only for married, heterosexual couples. The fraternity said that it didn't object to other parts of the equal-opportunity policy (barring discrimination on the basis of race, for example), but it lost its eligibility for recognition, and subsequently sued.

The basis of the challenge, which Judge Bullock has largely accepted, is that the fraternity's First Amendment rights were being violated by forcing it to admit members who didn't share its views. Last year, the judge issued an injunction barring the university from using its policy to deny recognition to the fraternity based on its ability to decide based "upon individual inquiry" whether prospective members or leaders shared the group's beliefs.

The university subsequently clarified its policy to carve out a specific exception for groups "on the basis of commitment to a set of beliefs" that largely mirrors Judge Bullock's injunction. And the fraternity has since been recognized. The key distinctions in the policy -- which Judge Bullock endorsed as appropriate and necessary -- are who it applies to and how it is enforced. The exception is strictly limited to political and religious groups, so the band or student newspaper, for example, could not start to apply doctrinal or sexual conduct tests.

As to enforcement by a student group, Judge Bullock wrote that his order distinguished between "beliefs" (discrimination is OK, he said) and "status" (where discrimination would be banned). So under Chapel Hill's clarified rules, and others the judge would uphold, the fraternity couldn't ask prospective students whether they were Jewish or gay, but could ask if they believed in certain theological views.

While the fraternity argued that the suit needed to stay alive to protect its rights, the judge found no evidence that Chapel Hill had failed to abide by the new rules, and so ruled that there was no reason to keep the litigation going. He called the clarified policy "an acceptable and thoughtful balance of the interest of the [university] to foster diversity, safeguard academic freedom, encourage intellectual discourse, and discourage discrimination" with the interests of the fraternity members "to organize with like-minded students to participate in an evangelical Christian student organization on campus."

The Alliance Defense Fund, the group that represented the fraternity, said that the judge's ruling was a victory, even though it rejected the fund's request to keep the case alive. In a statement, the fund said that Chapel Hill's current policies were consistent with the suit's goals -- and that those policies wouldn't have been in place but for the suit.

The university, however, has said that the clarification it made in its policy reflected its views all along, and the judge's ruling vindicated its position. Chancellor James Moeser said: "We believe this ruling affirms the university's central position since the case began. There is value in having a non-discrimination policy at a public university. Our objective remains seeking to carefully balance our students' First Amendment rights with the rights guaranteed by the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions to equal protection of the laws and freedom from discrimination."


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