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DUIN: All groups have a right to free speech

- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lots of folks were outraged in May when Liberty University severely restricted its Young Democrats Club because the Lynchburg, Va., institution had a problem with moral stances taken by the Democratic Party.

The club, whose members were conservatives who happened to support Barack Obama, wasn't banned from existence, but it could not use the evangelical university's name to identify itself.

Lots of media and politicians piled on, including Gov. Tim Kaine, gubernatorial candidates Creigh Deeds and Terry McAuliffe, and Mike Signer, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. All criticized the university for restricting free speech.

Where were these politicians when conservative groups were banned from campuses?

In 2002, an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group at Rutgers University was banned from using campus facilities and stripped of university funding because it insisted its leadership be Christian. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill threatened InterVarsity and other Christian organizations with banishment for similar reasons.

The Rutgers situation was resolved in April 2003 with the help of a lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defense Fund. UNC also came around after InterVarsity threatened to sue.

Nevertheless in the fall of 2006, Georgetown University moved to kick certain Protestant groups — including InterVarsity — off campus, about the same time as the University of Wisconsin-Superior stripped InterVarsity of all rights.

Again, a lawsuit helped the Wisconsin officials see the light in terms of freedom of association. Georgetown officials must have realized they were on the losing side of the debate, because by the following May, they had agreed to reaffiliate the groups that had been tossed off campus nine months before.

The stakes are huge. InterVarsity says the largest college class in history — 18.4 million students — is enrolled at the nation's universities this fall, which represents one giant mission field for religious groups. College is a key time for people to change religions or try on new ones.

One organization on the cutting line of the debate is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which observes its 10th anniversary on Thursday. Its spokesman, Adam Kissel, said some universities are more draconian than ever in terms of policing thoughts.

"Some student groups get in trouble for restricting their leaders, as in not allowing homosexuals in leadership," he said. "Others get in trouble for restricting their membership. Not allowing religious groups to restrict in both areas is violating their rights to freedom of association."

With the exception of a 2003 incident at Louisiana State University involving a Muslim group wishing to restrict its membership to Muslims, all the battles have involved conservative Christians. College campuses look the other way when conservative groups allow only men as priests or imams, he said, but go after groups that believe homosexuality is a sin.

"So you have an orthodoxy coming from the university saying what are the acceptable beliefs for a religious group," he said.

Moreover, in Truth vs. Kent, a 2001 case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that students cannot form a group around shared religious beliefs. FIRE knows this same ruling is being applied to college campuses in eight western states where religious groups are being discriminated against, specifically in Christian Legal Society vs. Kane, a 2009 case involving the University of California at Hastings Law School.

CLS was denied official recognition because it required all voting members and officers to agree to a statement of faith. The university said student groups must "accept all comers as voting members even if those individuals disagree with the mission of the group."

Why don't politicians get worked up about that?

Julia Duin's Stairway to Heaven column runs on Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.