To borrow a Texas custom, we should all tip our hats to the officials at Texas A&M University. Why? Because they chose to honor the First Amendment rights of their students instead of following the misguided lead of most other public universities in America.
Almost every public college and university in the country currently requires student organizations to abide by a nondiscrimination policy in order to receive and maintain official recognition status. These policies forbid student organizations from discriminating against potential members based on a number of categories, including race, sex, national origin, religion, and sexual orientation. Most would see this as a laudable effort. But the inherent flaw in such policies is that they bring a one-size-fits-all paradigm to student organizations that leaves little breathing room for the First Amendment.
Let me demonstrate. We would all answer affirmatively if asked whether a public university has the authority, and indeed the moral duty, to prohibit a student club from rejecting African-Americans from becoming members. But when a student organization is formed to promote certain ideas and beliefs, should the university have the power to force that group to accept persons who dissent from the group’s belief system? Most universities confidently answer, “Yes,” on the grounds that they need to prevent all discrimination on campus. This profound and bold-sounding response, however, is demonstrably wrong. Why? The First Amendment provides the answer.
The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to join with others to form organizations, advance particular viewpoints, and to associate with like-minded individuals around a core of beliefs. This freedom of association strengthens our cherished rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. Thus, when a group of college students decides to form an organization to advance a set of beliefs, they are employing their freedoms of speech, association, and–in the case of religious groups–exercise of religion. Although the university has broad authority to regulate the conduct of such student organizations, this authority must stop where the student group’s First Amendment rights begin.
So, where is this line in the context of nondiscrimination policies? It lies at the intersection of status and belief. The university can stop status-based exclusions unless the protected status is belief-based, as in the case of religion. What sets apart a member of a certain religious group is not some visible, immutable characteristic, but rather, a set of beliefs. When a university forbids a religious organization from selecting its membership based on religion, the university is essentially dictating what the organization can believe. The First Amendment condemns this type of government compulsion.
Texas A&M grasped this principle after engaging in discussions with the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, and allowed the student organization, Freshmen Leaders in Christ (FLiC), to continue its mission of training Christian freshmen to become Christian leaders. By working with ADF and responding to the needs of its students, Texas A&M has made the First Amendment feel quite at home in College Station. If only other universities were so welcoming.