Late yesterday we received word that a federal judge in North Carolina had dismissed a Christian fraternity’s lawsuit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (My employer, the Alliance Defense Fund, represents the fraternity). This decision represents the latest chapter in UNC’s long-running battle against religious liberty on campus. The public first became aware of UNC’s disrespect for basic First Amendment rights in late 2002 when it sought to “de-recognize” (a university euphemism for “ban”) several Christian groups because those groups reserved leadership for, gasp, Christians. After the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education launched a highly effective public campaign, the university backed away.
Less than two years later, UNC was at it again, this time de-recognizing a Christian fraternity for (oh, the horror) limiting its membership to believing Christians. A second public campaign did not succeed, and the fraternity filed suit.
In March, 2005, the court granted a preliminary injunction against UNC’s expansive non-discrimination policy and, shortly thereafter, the university revised its policy to permit student groups to “select their members on the basis of commitment to a set of beliefs,” yet it strangely still prohibited religious student groups from discriminating on the basis of “religious status.” (This is a strange distinction . . . is there a difference between religious belief and religious status? Can a person believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior yet say his religious status is Hindu? Religion is a set of beliefs, which of course makes it fundamentally different from the immutable status of race or gender). Regardless of the vague policy, the university has now recognized the fraternity, permits it to limit its membership to Christians, and has substantially revised and improved its nondiscrimination policy. In other words, the fraternity won its case.
Because the current policy is still vague, however, the fraternity did not drop its lawsuit and sought permission to challenge the new policy as written. In a 37-page opinion, the court refused the fraternity’s request and dismissed the case, holding that the “resolution of all issues” and the “relative success for the Plaintiffs” rendered the case moot. Moreover, the court would not permit the Plaintiffs to amend their complaint to challenge the new policy, finding that the policy was an “acceptable and thoughtful balance” of the various interests involved. While we of course disagree with this conclusion, the critical facts still work in the fraternity’s favor: As a result of the lawsuit, they are now recognized, and a substantially improved (though still imperfect) policy is on the books.
The university has of course spun this outcome as a vindication (despite the injunction and despite the policy change), with the Chancellor saying in a statement: “We believe this ruling affirms the university’s central position since the case began. There is value in having a non-discrimination policy at a public university.”
This statement is absurd. The plaintiffs never challenged the existence or value of non-discrimination policies at public universities. They simply argued (and the judge agreed when he granted their motion for preliminary injunction), that non-discrimination policies can’t be so broad as to deny religious organizations the right to use religious principles when selecting its members and leaders.
This issue is being fought in courts across the country, and may more court rulings will be coming down soon. Stay tuned.