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The Right to be Governed

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

There are a number of differences between the college students of the 1960s and the college students of today. Perhaps none is more striking than the desire of the former to be free and the latter to be controlled by the university administration. A recent controversy at UNC-Chapel Hill shows just how upset students become when administrators tell them they are free to associate with whomever they choose.

The controversy began like so many controversies begin on college campuses. A homosexual student joined a group that did not share his views on homosexuality. When he was predictably removed from the group he launched a campus-wide controversy that required the intervention of the university administration in order to answer a fundamental constitutional question. In this case, the question was: Did a Christian group, Psalm 100, have a right to expel a homosexual because his views on homosexuality were deemed incompatible with the group’s stated beliefs?

The university is getting much undeserved credit for arriving at the right decision in saying the group was within its rights to expel the homosexual. The truth of the matter is that the university only got this one half right. The part they got wrong was their suggestion that the group would have been violating the student’s rights had they expelled him for his “sexual orientation” rather than his beliefs about sexual orientation. This is a dangerous position with implications few people have considered fully. It is an issue that cannot be avoided as institutions continue to substitute the word “orientation” for behavior – a sleight of hand that is both intentional and highly significant.

Imagine for a moment that a similar issue arose within another religious organization – this time a church located off campus. Imagine the specifics involved a youth leader who was living out of wedlock with his girlfriend. The church would be well within its rights if it determined that he should step down because his sexual behavior conflicted with the teachings of the church. Nor should such a right be limited to decisions involving church leadership. The church could just as well expel a member for having an open affair with the spouse of another church member. The behavior would be an affront to the teachings of the church and should be handled within the church. The fact that the church receives tax breaks would in no way invite the government into the conflict.

Nor should it matter if the youth leader had been living with his boyfriend in an open homosexual relationship. Although the term sexual orientation would then be invoked – replacing the term “sexual behavior” - it should make no difference to the government. It is not their business. Nor would it change things if the church decided to expel a non-leading member for the same reason.

So how has the government become so involved in governing the affairs of student religious organizations at state-run institutions? The answer lies in the operation of the mandatory student fee system at public universities. Because the government charges fees to all students – even those having no desire to join such groups – it has assumed the role of controlling their inner workings all the way down to dictating the scope of their religious beliefs and their membership policies.

But is the act of taking student money and then returning it only in exchange for control over membership requirements really justified? And does it pass constitutional muster when those organizations are religious in nature?

Those who answer in the affirmative must somehow distinguish between the on-campus and off-campus religious organization if they are to justify controlling the membership of the former but not the latter. They do so by pointing out that churches only receive tax breaks whereas campus organizations seek to obtain supplemental funding for their religious exercise. But that is a distinction without a difference. Those supplemental funds came initially out of the students’ pockets. They are never fully recovered. What is called a mandatory fee is nothing but a direct tax on religious freedom.

Students should be opposed to these mandatory fees for at least three reasons:

1. They raise the cost of education. My university charges nearly one-thousand dollars per semester in these fees. The fee is clearly unjustified.

2. The fees are siphoned off to pay the salaries of university administrators who control reallocation. But they do not fully cover the salaries of those administrators. Thus, they place a burden on taxpayers – even those not attending the universities. And that is wrong.

3. Finally, they give the university a ready justification to control student religious expression as well as student freedom of association.

The UNC-Chapel Hill student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, agrees with my assertion that the university only got the recent Psalm 100 controversy half right. But the part I thought the university got wrong is the part the newspaper thought they got right. In other words, the Daily Tar Heel asserts that the university has the right to prevent religious groups from removing people for their sexual behavior or for their beliefs about sexual behavior.

It is certainly odd that the generation that once protested for more freedom has now taken over the university. It is odder still that they have convinced students to give them money to help them take away the basic freedoms they once championed. To the extent that today’s student protests, he says he wants them to take more. He thus asserts the right to be governed instead of the right to be free.

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