Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… Amendment 1, United States Constitution
The first amendment to the constitution is fairly clear and unambiguous. In recent years, however, the topic and application of this amendment have been under intense scrutiny, especially in the academic realm. A quick scan of higher education headlines yielded me a significant number of articles regarding the intersection of religious freedom on college campuses. These same campuses espouse freedom of expression and human rights; yet seek to curtail those freedoms and rights by limiting their students’ freedom to exercise their religion. Among the headlines covering this I found:
- Vanderbilt University currently refuses to approve constitutions of student groups that require leaders to share belief/faith systems
- Tufts University refuses to allow the campus Christian club to reject homosexual members
- Princeton University’s outright refusal to recognize an off-campus student ministry (later overturned)
- Penn State University’s student government supreme court declares the phrase “God-given free will…” constitutes religious discrimination (later overturned)
- Brown University’s suspension of the Reformed University Fellowship with no explanation (later reinstated; again with no explanation)
- and Wright State University refused to recognize the Campus Bible Fellowship for requiring that their voting membership “accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.” (Later approved)
This is just a brief sample of the many reports I found of Christian students or student groups having difficulty exercising their “free exercise thereof” on campus. In many instances, students had to appeal rulings, seek legal counsel, and in some cases sue in order to get these negative sanctions overturned. Why does it appear that the most learned among us have found it so difficult to take an approach to the issue of religious freedom that establishes the appropriate organizational boundaries without appearing to trample the rights of the students?
For generations, the American liberal arts college experience has been called one of the best in the world for its ability to teach students about the power of ideas. Many of these same colleges listed above proudly tout their status as champions of rights, expressions, ideas, and ideals. However, it appears that they have some measure of difficulty manifesting these statements in practice when it comes to constitutionally-protected expressions of religious liberty.
I was once blessed with a mentor who told me that if I wanted to tell who was being truthful with me and who wasn’t, look to see if their words match their behavior.
As the students say, #justsaying