religious freedom and non-discrimination at a private university

What should a university do when a religious student group applies internal rules that are discriminatory? For example, theologically conservative Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Christian, and Muslim groups may want to discriminate against gay students or may maintain that clerical roles are only open to men and expect their lay student leaders to endorse those views.

Tufts seeks to protect members of religious groups, women, and gay students against discrimination. When religious associations discriminate, that creates a dilemma. Indeed, the Tufts student government recently withdrew recognition from the Tufts Christian Fellowship on the grounds of discrimination against gays. On appeal, the Committee on Student Life (predominantly professors) ruled that the student government had enforced existing policy appropriately, but that the rules should be changed to accommodate religious freedom. The resulting decision deserves to be read in full, because it is fairly subtle and complex. In summary, it has these features:

(1) It distinguishes between membership and leadership. Tufts Hillel is required to admit Catholic members, but it could (in theory) choose to reserve its officer roles for observant Jews.

(2) It requires religious groups to state explicitly that they dissent from aspects of Tufts non-discrimination policy. For example, if they discriminate against gays, they have to say so. That may harm their overall reputation, but it’s fair enough because they should be accountable for their views. By the way, this policy opens a valuable opportunity to discuss what counts as discrimination. The Tufts Christian Fellowship requires chastity, presumably for all students regardless of sexual orientation. But it is discriminatory if straight students can hold hands when gay students cannot. The transparency policy requires them to make those judgments publicly and to pay the price in public opinion.

(3) It permits discriminatory policies within religious groups only if they are consistent with “doctrine”; and the chaplain’s office must review whether a doctrine really supports any given discrimination. It will be interesting to see how the professionals in the chaplain’s office make those judgments. One consequence will be to put a whole denomination in the hot seat if its representatives on campus assert that its doctrine is in conflict with Tufts anti-discrimination policy.

(4) It encourages pluralism. Tufts has a non-duplication policy: the university won’t recognize, for example, two evangelical Protestant student groups unless they differ in some meaningful way. Given the transparency policy, it is now possible for evangelicals who are pro-equality to create a rival group to the one that has taken a discriminatory stance.

I don’t believe that a university is simply a free speech zone that must give equal recognition and support to all views just because they are freely expressed. A university is primarily in the business of favoring excellent speech and disfavoring bad speech. Some religious speech that is discriminatory should be disfavored. For instance, many denominations were at one time openly racist. If they stuck to those views, a private university would be right to deny them official certification.

So why is it OK to express discriminatory positions about gays and women? I don’t think this is morally acceptable, but the question is what to do about it when the world’s biggest faiths remain widely committed to such discrimination. If a predominantly secular university like Tufts responds by decertifying religious groups that follow their own mainstream doctrines, then I think we will lose religious students and the opportunity to interact with them. The purpose of many religious student associations is to convince and persuade–to make converts or at least strengthen the faith of their own adherents. But conversion runs two ways. If religious students study at a place like Tufts, they are likely to liberalize their views of homosexuality and gender roles. If we chase them away, we lose that opportunity.

Overall, I think the new policy is sophisticated and wise. That’s easy for me to say as a straight man. No one is adopting formal positions that disparage my identity. So I recognize that I may be too tolerant of intolerance against other people. But I think the argument for deliberative accountability and pluralism is pretty strong, and it has the best chance of producing more equitable views in the long run.

(See also: On religion in public debates and specifically in middle school classrooms; and A theory of free speech on campus)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.