When Nondiscrimination Becomes Discrimination

Last week, I received notice of a meeting this week to review the university’s nondiscrimination policy as it relates to belief-based organizations (e.g., Young Democrats, Carolina Review, or InterVarsity). This committee was called after university administrators ruled that Psalm 100, a Christian a capella group, did not violate the current nondiscrimination policy when they voted Will Thomason out of the group because of his views on homosexuality. Critics assert they voted him out because of his sexual orientation, not his views.

According to an email I received from a member of the policy review committee, there are four actions that they may take:

  1. Implement an “all-comers” policy where belief-based groups cannot take a prospective members beliefs’ into account when considering them for membership
  2. Implement a modified “all-comers” policy where you can take their beliefs into account, but none related to “personal characteristics” (i.e., “a Christian organization couldn’t require that gay members believe homosexuality is a sin”)
  3. Require student leaders to sign a non-discrimination statement or require student organizations to incorporate a non-discrimination statement into their bylaws.
  4. Make no change.

The first two are highly problematic. Consider the current policy:

Student organizations that select their members on the basis of commitment to a set of beliefs (e.g., religious or political beliefs) may limit membership and participation in the organization to students who, upon individual inquiry, affirm that they support the organization’s goals and agree with its beliefs, so long as no student is excluded from membership or participation on the basis of his or her age, race, color, national origin, disability, religious status or historic religious affiliation, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or, unless exempt under Title IX, gender.

This policy is comprehensive and mediates between the need for free and open access while allowing belief-based organizations to ensure that their members adhere to the organization’s mission statement. Given the multiplicity of beliefs to which an organization may adhere, it also gives both members and the organization flexibility to determine the extent to which a member must support its beliefs before their membership is called into question (i.e., many College Republicans, myself included, disagreed with President Bush’s TARP program, yet were allowed to remain members).

So why is a change necessary?

The member of the committee gave a rationale for a potential change:

The current policy is the legacy of legal action taken against the university nearly a decade ago. It allows for political and religious groups — groups based around a set of beliefs — to limit their membership to students who profess agreement with those beliefs. This is technically different from discriminating on the basis of personal characteristics, which is what the rest of the policy addresses. However, recent history has shown us that this can become problematic for individuals who are required by organizations they are members  of to hold beliefs which could be considered antagonistic toward their personal characteristics. Furthermore, what beliefs are required for membership is open to interpretation with each successive leadership — what it means to be Christian or Conservative is hardly set in stone. In fact, that discussion is in part why many of these groups exist. This can potentially jeopardize members down the line who were formerly in good standing.

This is in keeping with the sentiments expressed by Thomason, Terri Phoenix, and other participants to the Daily Tar Heel which seems to indicate that some change will occur. Also, knowing the other members of the committee, I strongly suspect some change will be made especially given the outside pressure seen last semester for retribution against Psalm 100.

Whatever change is made will be the first step in regulating what precisely student groups may believe. The impetus behind the policy review is a perfect example. While I consider Will a friend and disagreed with Psalm 100’s decision to vote him out, ultimately, the decision was up to Psalm 100 as to whether or not Will was upholding their mission statement. And properly so. The moment the university decides whether or not certain beliefs are acceptable is the moment that we’ve effectively ended the idea that the university is supposed to be a free marketplace of ideas.

Even on the face of it, the proposed changes are laughable. Why should Young Democrats be forced to accept my membership, even though I fundamentally disagree with their values and beliefs? They might want to accept my dues money, but should I be able to vote on which endorsements they make or be elected to their executive board? Should a contingent of College Republicans be allowed to try and dictate YD policy or be present and able to vote when sensitive decisions are being made?

For larger groups such machinations probably aren’t an issue, but for smaller organizations like Carolina Review the chance that a few liberals could dominate the group is very possible. Recent actions taken against the Review by fringe organizations indicate that this could be a real threat.

Or take the issue of representation. After the presumed new policy is in place, could someone who disagrees with the Campus Blueprint join and do anything in the name of the organization simply to embarrass Blueprint? Will magazines like The Siren be able to take editorial stances any more or refuse to publish articles they think don’t uphold their brand of feminism?

What about the Muslim Students Association? Their bylaws require that only members can serve in leadership positions, while, to be a member, one must “strictly accept doctrines prescribed in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as practiced by Ahl-Al Sunnah Wa Al-Jama’a.” In what world does it make sense that MSA would have to accept a non-Muslim as a leader?

Even if the policy only bans belief discrimination based on personal characteristics, that leaves the door wide-open for interpretation. Homosexuality is fairly straightforward, but a “characteristic” is simply “a distinguishing trait, quality, or property.” What would fall under this category? Unpopular opinions (i.e., “homosexuality is a sin”) may be the first to go, but the administration would have set a strong precedent for far broader powers to determine which beliefs would pass muster, effectively wielding veto-power over those beliefs.

Vanderbilt University implemented a similar policy to the one UNC is now considering which put the Vanderbilt chapter of the Christian Legal Society in violation. Last September, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent Vanderbilt a letter which brought out a crucial point:

[W]hen it comes to religious groups on campus, Vanderbilt’s failure to recognize that religion is also a belief compromises those groups’ ability to effectively communicate their messages. Part of CLS’s expressive purpose is to communicate to other law students what it sees as the Christian message.

On that point, the Christian Legal Society is no different than any other belief-based organization. In the rationale that the committee member gave me (above), he said that our concepts of Christian and conservative are not “set in stone.” No one disputes that. Yet it is still the right of an organization to define what it believes to be Christian or conservative. In our own history, the Review was founded in 1993 after a disagreement over the direction the original Carolina Critic was headed. A later split occurred when some members wanted to go in a more “human interest” direction and founded the Blue & White. If Will Thomason felt as though Psalm 100 were not upholding true Christianity, he had every right to start his own Christian a capella group. No one- including Psalm 100- could stop him. But the fact remains that belief-based organizations are fundamentally evangelical in nature insofar as they have a set of beliefs and it is their intention to publicize those beliefs and recruit new adherents to its standard.

In a follow-up letter to Vanderbilt, FIRE outlined a set of hypotheticals that I hope the policy review committee considers before making a final decision:

  • If one of the leaders of Vanderbilt’s Muslim Students Association were to convert to Christianity, is the group required to maintain that person in his or her leadership role despite the fact that he or she is no longer Muslim?
  • Vanderbilt informed the Christian Legal Society that its requirement that student leaders “lead Bible studies, prayer, and worship” was against the policy because it implied that these leaders must hold certain religious beliefs. How do you suggest religious groups at Vanderbilt fulfill their purposes without leaders who can accomplish such core tasks of religious leadership?
  • While this dispute was originally confined to religious organizations, your statement of January 20 states that all student organizations must accept any student as a member or a leader. If a group of straight students—the majority at Vanderbilt—were to join the Vanderbilt Lambda Association, vote themselves into office, and disband the group or alter the group’s mission, what recourse would LGBT members of the Lambda Association have?
  • If a member of the College Republicans joins the College Democrats to discover their plans for political activism and report those plans back to the College Republicans in order to thwart them, do the College Democrats have any way to stop him or her?
  • Under this policy, must an ideological student journal like Vanderbilt’s Orbis accept editors or publish columnists who disagree with, mock, or denigrate its progressive political views?
  • Many groups in the Occupy movement choose to make decisions by consensus. How could a Vanderbilt-based Occupy group operate if a small group of students joined specifically to prevent the group from acting in any way by constantly preventing a consensus from forming?
  • If a student were to join an environmentalist group like Vanderbilt SPEAR and then use his membership in that group to increase his or her credibility when publicly criticizing the group’s positions in the Nashville or Vanderbilt newspapers, what could the group do to prevent this?

The reality is, under an “all-comers” or similar policy, there would be no recourse for the groups in the above situation.

Student fee money became an issue last fall, but the fact remains that Psalm 100 members also pay into the pool that is disbursed to student organizations. Why should they not be eligible to receive money simply because the university thought Psalm 100 fell short of “inclusivity” benchmark? Of course, a voucher system for student fees would resolve this issue quite nicely, but the university administration seems to believe regulating beliefs is the best way to go.

If UNC decides to expand our nondiscrimination policy, they will have joined Vanderbilt- to quote FIRE- in “abandoning America’s pluralistic tradition by banning religious and political student groups from making leadership decisions based on their religious or political beliefs.” That pluralistic tradition has long been the underpinning of the liberal arts enterprise which UNC will jettison and, in doing so, make a mockery of our motto lux libertas. That’s definitely not the Carolina Way.

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