PHILADELPHIA — If circumstances were different, Christian groups might feel very uncomfortable indeed with the Philadelphia-based national organization FIRE — the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
FIRE sees its mission as defending free speech rights on today's campuses — and they would do so for anyone from homosexual activists to born-again Christians.
But Thor Halversson, the foundation's executive director, said that campuses today value political correctness above true pluralism. As a result, Christian groups are the most frequent victims of first amendment violations.
“It just happens that right now there is a movement at universities against conservative groups and Christians,” Halvorssen emphasized. “Non-discrimination policies are being used to root out unpopular groups,” he said, adding that Christian groups contact FIRE “constantly.”
The need is so great that FIRE is currently drafting a guide to religious liberty for distribution on college campuses, informing students of their rights. The foundation is also opening a Center for Religious Freedom on Campus to serve as a resource for students and student groups.
FIRE's mission statement says they aim to protect students’ rights against “increasingly repressive and partisan colleges and universities.” The statement mentions the rights of “freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience” as liberties the foundation seeks to protect.
“FIRE is much needed,” William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights told the Register. “There is more repression on college campuses today than ever.”
Since its doors opened in October of 1999, FIRE has been active on more than 150 campuses across the country, from the University of California at Santa Barbara to Vermont's Bennington College. The foundation has worked with Christian groups at Grinnell College, State University of New York at Oswego, Williams College, Whitman College, Tufts University and others.
The organization has defended a myriad of student groups — newspapers whose views run contrary to mainstream campus thought, religious groups that believe homosexual activity is sinful, students tried under flawed university justice systems, gay rights groups, and professors disciplined for expressing unpopular ideas.
In one of FIRE's more high-profile cases, Tufts Christian Fellowship was “derecognized” because the group refused to grant a leadership position to Julie Catelano, a student member whose views of homosexuality and Scripture ran contrary to their own. The group was accused of violating Tufts’ non-discrimination policy. Tufts’ Student Judiciary denied the fellowship access to funding, meeting space, the use of Tufts’ name, and the right to advertise on campus.
The fellowship responded to the charges of discrimination, saying that they welcome gay members, but they denied Catelano a leadership position because she disagreed with the group's belief that homo sexuality is sinful according to Scripture. When protests to the administration were unsuccessful, the Christian fellowship enlisted FIRE's help.
FIRE drew up a petition which was then signed by over 100 professors, asking the Tufts administration to “recognize that it lacks the moral authority to force evangelical Christians to give up their religious beliefs and practices, in order to conform to the administration's preference for ‘inclusion.’”
The story was covered by the Washington Times, the Associated Press and the Boston Globe, among other media — and the Tufts Committee on Student Life eventually remanded the charges against Tufts Christian Fellowship. Shou Minh, a Tufts alumnus and former member of the Tufts Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Collective, called her experience with FIRE “unpleasant.”
The Tufts case is far from an isolated incident. In a similar case at Iowa's Grinnell College, the campus chapter of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was derecognized in 1997 and has since been reinstated.
The Newman Center at Williams College was told in May of last year that federal law mandated they adopt a policy of non-discrimination — a policy that conflicted with their beliefs — or face expulsion from campus, Halvorssen said. Along with other Christian groups on campus, they contacted FIRE for help. In November, Halvorssen sent a letter to Williams’ president, dean and provost arguing that “authentic diversity surely requires a place at the table for Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians.”
“No one goes to Williams College thinking that being a Roman Catholic will be unacceptable,” he told the Register.
Williams College dean Nancy A. Roseman responded with a letter saying: “Shortly after becoming Dean of the College, I reviewed the policy concerning student groups and decided to eliminate any requirement that all groups adopt whole cloth the College's nondiscrimination policies as a part of a registration process.”
Roseman told the Register that Christian groups at the college were never threatened.
“I was evaluating our policies before I had any contact with [FIRE],” said Roseman, who has been dean at Williams for one year. “And I decided the policies were overly bureaucratic.” She added that, should a conflict similar to the one at Tufts occur at Williams, she would be hesitant to hand matters over to the student judiciary.
“We would make every attempt to mediate, and make it into a learning opportunity for the entire campus,” she said. “Williams is a small community, and we like to operate as a community, not as a bureaucracy.”
Although FIRE works with a network of about 100 attorneys who provide services from amicus briefs to legal representation, the group does not directly represent individuals. They attempt, instead, to resolve matters amicably. When necessary, they put the media spotlight on campuses where they believe injustices have occurred.
Most of the time, just the threat of exposure leads to resolution. Fewer than 10% of FIRE's cases end up in the news, said Halvorssen.
This non-legislative approach, according to Donohue, is the best way to fight for first amendment rights on campuses. Litigation, he said, is too slow and expensive. Private colleges and universities, in particular, are often held more accountable in the court of public opinion than in a court of law.
Halvorssen agrees. “Schools must be held to the promises that they make to their students.”
Maggie Rauch writes from Austin, Texas.