- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2001

A high-profile defender of student and academic liberty has created a center to deal solely with protecting religious freedom at the nation's colleges and universities.

Since opening its doors nearly two years ago, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia has been inundated with requests to help students and leaders of campus organizations embroiled in conflicts with administrators over freedom of religion and association, said FIRE officials.

FIRE's new Center for Religious Freedom on Campus will serve as an online, print and in-person resource, and will provide a hot line as well as a network of lawyers to battle the climate of "selective repression" that pervades modern higher education, said FIRE's Executive Director Thor L. Halvorssen. The center will open in September.

"We want people of faith to know that they have not been abandoned," Mr. Halvorssen said. "Our aim will be nothing less than the restoration of religious liberty and the rights of conscience to our nation's campuses."

Winfield Myers of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a think tank in Wilmington, Del., with outreach programs on several college campuses, says FIRE's new center offers "much-needed aid for beleaguered students who take religion seriously."

"Too many college administrators want a window into the souls of their students in order to gather information to use against them as if holding religious beliefs strongly enough to act on them is somehow wrong or harmful," Mr. Myers said. "By standing up for freedom of religion, FIRE is striking a blow for intellectual integrity and the stability of civil society."

Since 1998, FIRE has successfully defended cases on behalf of student religious groups that have been threatened, punished or banned at such schools as Grinnell College, Williams College, Ball State University, Whitman College, Middlebury College, the State University of New York at Oswego, Castleton State College and Purdue University.

The foundation gained national media attention when it assisted a Christian student group at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. The group was banned from the college after it denied a leadership position to a lesbian member whose views contradicted the evangelical group's beliefs. After much wrangling and fierce campus debate, a campus panel reinstated the Tufts Christian Fellowship as an official campus group.

At Penn State University, a student court took action against the conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom, whose mission statement included the phrase "God-given rights." The court decided the words violated the school's nondiscrimination policy.

FIRE intervened, writing the school's president, and soon the YAF's official language was restored.

Laura Kulp, director for the new center, says FIRE is seeking funding for the center and preparing for new cases of religious discrimination as students at the nation's 3,500 institutions of higher learning return to classes over the next several weeks. The center already has received a multiyear grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Mr. Halvorssen said.

One of the center's first major projects will be to distribute a guide detailing the rights of students and on-campus student religious groups.

"I believe that students on campus really don't have an idea what their rights are," said Miss Kulp. "I think the problem is that they often have administrators whom they assume have the proper knowledge, and when there is a problem, it becomes just submission to authority.

"Oftentimes, I don't think students even venture to find out what their actual rights are," she said. "And often, administrators aren't aware that they are violating rights."

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