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Hot on Campus | October 24, 2012

Tufts Christian group fighting bias claims

Religious freedom

Student-led judiciary says group's constitution violates the school's nondiscrimination policy

Tufts University (Photo via Facebook)

Another campus Christian group is fighting claims of discrimination over its requirement that leaders share a common profession of faith.

The student-led judiciary at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., voted last week to revoke official recognition for Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF), the largest evangelical group on campus. Complaints from a group formed to challenge TCF's presence on campus prompted the judiciary's decision. Members of the Tufts Coalition Against Religious Exclusion accused TCF of violating the school's nondiscrimination policy.

TCF, a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, faced similar complaints 12 years ago after denying a female student a leadership role because of her beliefs about homosexuality. In that case, as in most other recent incidents involving campus Christian groups, school officials responded to a situation involving a specific student.

But this time, the challenge to TCF did not include any current or former members of the organization. Nothing but a desire to force the group off campus prompted the complaints. Greg Jao, a national field director with InterVarsity, believes the strategy at Tufts will prompt similar challenges at other campuses.

"This is part of the larger renegotiation of how we understand religion in our culture," he said.

The attacks on college Christian groups, as well as the debate about religious liberty nationally, continue to push faith out of the public square and into the private space of homes and places of worship, Jao said. Those who oppose public expressions of faith say religion is too exclusive for today's culture.

In an editorial published in student newspaper The Tufts Daily, Tufts Coalition Against Religious Exclusion member Brandon Archambalt accused TCF of "hate speech" because of its beliefs about homosexuality and called for the school to stop funding the group with student activity fees.

"Since when was freedom of religion a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card that excused bigotry?" he asked.

Archambalt encouraged students to lobby school administrators to uphold the student judiciary's decision. But Jao hopes administrators will affirm their commitment to religious freedom and reinstate the group's official recognition.

In 2000, InterVarsity representatives successfully persuaded Tufts administrators the school's commitment to diversity required them to allow Christian groups to operate on campus, even if they disagreed with a specific groups' beliefs. Since then, TCF's membership has grown to about 120 students and the group has not faced any accusations of discrimination.

Archambalt, one of four students who filed the official complaint, also urged students to read the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case that most opponents of on-campus Christian groups say allows nondiscrimination policies to trump religious freedom. In CLS v. Martinez, the high court ruled that schools could adopt policies requiring all campus groups to be open to all students. But the court did not say whether schools could adopt such "all-comers" policies if they contained exceptions for certain groups, like sports teams, fraternities and sororities, which discriminate based on gender.

As a private school, Tufts is not bound to follow Supreme Court rulings. Last year, another private school, Nashville's Vanderbilt University, adopted an "all-comers" policy that forced 15 evangelical Christian groups to sever ties with the school. Most public colleges have avoided such policies, knowing they are likely to be challenged in court.

Although most nondiscrimination policies now target Christian groups, Jao believes other organizations eventually will get caught excluding someone. Several of Tufts' best known groups, including the all-male a cappella troupe Beelzebubs, restrict membership based on gender. It's only a matter of time before someone accuses those groups of discrimination, Jao said.

Nondiscrimination policies should foster respectful engagement of all groups, but they cannot mean all groups must be open to all, he said: "That's the student body as a whole. Groups exist to focus energy around specific interests."