The phone lines at Wichita State University (WSU) have apparently been down for well over a decade. At least it appears that way after WSU blatantly violated a twelve-year old Supreme Court ruling in its efforts to curtail religious expression across its state-supported campus. Fortunately, my friend and attorney David French of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has intervened. He re-established contact with WSU and helped usher them into the 21st Century by slowly explaining the First Amendment to bewildered state officials.
The problem began when WSU enacted a rule that prohibited any "non-scholarly religious" student group from receiving student fee funding. This was nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to defund virtually all religious groups at WSU. Think about it for a second: how many student religious groups do you know of that have a primary interest in “scholarship”? Student religious groups are largely social in nature and usually meet for purposes of evangelism. These groups know that most church-going kids lose their faith – or nearly lose their faith – while in college. So they seek to counter those negative trends with evangelism.
Of course, universities don’t like that. They are engaged in their own process of evangelism. They seek to increase membership in the official university religion known as secular humanism. And that is why they are constantly devising illegal policies and trying to disguise them under false categorical schemes – the kind the Supreme Court has banned under decisions like Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995) and Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000).
The reasoning for the false and illegal scholarly/non-scholarly dichotomy is transparent. Universities rarely stray from restating some form of their ostensible purpose in banning speech that may offend. Here, the idea is that using student fee money to advocate for religion on campus or to engage in worship or other activities might cause others to object (read: to be offended). But so-called scholarly activity, absent evangelism or worship, is unlikely to offend.
But here’s the rub: these rules are confined to religious student groups - as opposed to groups engaged in political, social, and other forms of direct advocacy. And that amounts to the official disfavoring of religion compared to other viewpoints.
If you aren’t convinced then you probably do not know the facts. So here they are: WSU allows the viewpoints of such student groups as "That Gay Group," College Republicans, College Democrats, Young Democratic Socialists, and Wichita Students for Liberty to exist on campus. All of those groups are involved in persuasive advocacy.
Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Right in Education (FIRE) summed it up nicely by saying, “If other student groups continue to receive funding from student fees for ‘non-scholarly’ activities, there is no justification for denying funding to groups whose primary interest is religious.” Nothing more need be said.
Actually, something more does need to be said. WSU officials need to sit down and read FIRE’s Guide to Student Fees, Funding and Legal Equality on Campus. They also need to read two Supreme Court cases, Rosenberger and Southworth (both mentioned previously in this column). I assign those two cases to my undergraduate students so they will know their rights. Administrators also need to read them so they can learn the rules that apply to their jobs. Of course, to do so would place their reliance on qualified immunity in jeopardy. There would be no more pretending they were just doing their jobs and did not understand the law.
Fortunately, a student at WSU did know the law and contacted David French at the ACLJ. Shortly after receiving a First Amendment lesson from French, WSU revoked the discriminatory policy and restored equal funding rights to its religious groups. This area of law is settled; what is surprising is that there are still universities out there that continue to pretend they didn’t "get the memo." They need to watch Office Space before they get sued and wind up with a bad case of the Mondays. (My apologies go out to those who haven’t seen the movie and missed the pop culture reference altogether).
Religious speech on campus must be treated like all other speech on campus. To say that a student group should be disfavored simply because its viewpoint is based on religion - rather than any other belief or “orientation” – is unmitigated bigotry. To permit such a distinction would be to allow the university to silence any speech that does not conform to administrative orthodoxy. Put simply, it would cause the university to cease being a university.
It is good that WSU has chosen to repent and turn from its sinfully censorious ways. Credit belongs to those First Amendment evangelists who spread the good news of religious liberty on our nation’s campuses. Real scholars would be lost without them.
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