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Wright State University illegally discriminating against Christian student group, then tries to deceive their way out of it when called on it by the media. Legal action imminent?

Posted by iusbvision on March 4, 2009

Why is it that time and time and time again, case after case, at university after university, administrators who are paid six figure incomes break the law, illegally discriminate against students groups who they don’t like, engage in every type of sophistry and deception to try and wiggle their way out of it and can only be convinced to do the right thing by threat of legal action or the actual filing of legal action in a case the university has zero chance of winning?

Every couple of weeks a new case like this one pops up and this time it’s Wright State University in Ohio.

Wright State has stated that it will require the Christian Bible Fellowship (CBF) student group to adopt an illegal “non-discrimination clause” that would force it to allow atheists or Muslims in it’s leadership. This violates the First Amendment protection of freedom of expressive association.  The Supreme Court has ruled on this recently in the case of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale.

Not only are these kinds of rules illegal, they are also routinely selectively enforced. The College Democrats would not be forced to accept Republicans in its leadership, but the CBF would be required  to accept those who hate Christians in theirs. This is another reason why the courts have shot these rules down over and over again.

The student group has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help. FIRE’s letter to Wright State can be viewed HERE.

 

FIRE’s VP Robert Shively:

“A Christian group has the right to be Christian, a Jewish group has the right to be Jewish, and a Muslim group has the right to be Muslim,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Courts have affirmed this principle time and time again. It is shocking that in a free society, public universities like Wright State still don’t seem to understand or respect this crucial component of religious liberty.”

After more than 30 years of existence as a registered student organization at Wright State, the Campus Bible Fellowship (CBF) was prohibited from re-registering in 2009. On January 30, according to CBF representatives Joe Hollaway and Gary Holtz, CBF was informed by Wright State’s Office of Student Activities that its registration was being denied for two reasons. First, CBF refused to adopt university-mandated nondiscrimination language in its membership requirements that would have stripped the group of the right to require voting members to adhere to religious and behavioral standards. (Nonvoting members did not have to meet these standards.) Second, Wright State objected to the requirement in CBF’s constitution that voting members “accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior” and subscribe to the group’s articles of faith. Strangely, however, Wright State has so far refused to put this decision in writing.

CBF, which has been unable to meet on campus since the decision, contacted FIRE for help. FIRE wrote to Wright State President David R. Hopkins on February 12, informing him of federal legal precedent setting forth the principle that “if Wright State is to allow expressive organizations to exist on its campus at all, it must allow religious organizations to exist, to define their missions, [and] to select their own members.” FIRE also pointed to its victories in similar religious liberty cases at Ohio State University and at Tufts University.                      

“Wright State’s demands are not only unconstitutional, they are nonsensical,” said Robert L. Shibley, FIRE’s vice president. “It makes no sense for the university to force a group that exists to communicate its version of the Christian message to accept voting members or leaders who reject that very message.”

While President Hopkins has yet to respond to FIRE, Wright State General Counsel Gwen Mattison has continued the university’s increasingly suspicious practice of refusing to respond in writing to letters from both CBF and FIRE. On February 26, Mattison phoned FIRE’s Adam Kissel to inform him that Wright State would be recognizing CBF for the remainder of the academic year, but that the group would be required to make changes to its constitution when reapplying in May. However, when Kissel e-mailed Mattison to confirm the substance of the conversation, Mattison refused, replying only: “Incorrect–no other reply will be forthcoming.” CBF reports that it also has no knowledge that the ban has been lifted.

“If Wright State thinks that it can avoid the consequences of its actions by refusing to put its dealings with the Campus Bible Fellowship in writing, it is sorely mistaken,” said Shibley. “This shady practice strongly suggests that the university knows that its actions are illegitimate and unconstitutional.”

Wright State even appears to be violating its own policy that organizations created “for the purpose of deepening the religious faith of students within the context of a denominational or interdenominational grouping … may register through customary procedures,” even if they exclude members on the basis of religious views.

Fox News inquired to Wright State for comment for its story and issued a very carefully worded deception to fool Fox News into thinking that the university had reversed itself, when it had not.

FIRE was not amused to put it mildly. FIRE’s VP Robert Shively blasted the Wright State administration. Normally I like to just post an excerpt but this statement is SO juicy and SO substantive that I feel like we have no choice but to bring you every precious word.

Shively’s response is nothing short of awesome. The emphasis in bold text is ours:

Wright State Sets Smokescreen in Campus Bible Fellowship Case

by Robert Shibley

March 3, 2009

Developments are coming fast in the Wright State University case that FIRE took public yesterday. Mere hours after FIRE sent out its press release on the case, Wright State began sending the following statement to journalists making inquiries:

“Campus Bible Fellowship is a recognized student organization at Wright State. We do not discriminate on the basis of religion and we treat Campus Bible Fellowship like any other student group on campus,” said Dan Abrahamowicz, vice president for student affairs at Wright State University. “We are in the process of reviewing the policy for recognizing students groups on campus. If there is a change in university policy, all student groups will have to abide by it, not just one or two. Campus Bible Fellowship will have to go through the same process every other student organization has to go through for re-recognition when we do that for the fall quarter. There is no distinction between it and any other student organization on Wright State’s campus.”                                                                                                          

This statement is deceptive and raises sophistry to an art form. Let’s take a closer look.

First, Wright State’s contention that Campus Bible Fellowship was recognized was news to Campus Bible Fellowship, which has been unable to meet on campus since January. This sudden re-recognition was clearly meant to confuse the media into thinking there was no story—notice that the statement says that “Campus Bible Fellowship is a recognized student organization.” Wright State probably made the decision to recognize the group about five minutes before sending out this statement so that it would not be technically false, although it is meant to confuse the issue and hide the truth.

Those who read FIRE’s press release will recall that Wright State General Counsel Gwen Mattison told FIRE last Thursday that CBF would be re-recognized, but when FIRE wrote to Mattison to confirm the conversation, Mattison refused, replying only with “Incorrect–no other reply will be forthcoming.” Mattison undoubtedly thought that was pretty clever at the time.

It’s funny how things change, though, when your unfair treatment of a religious group starts making the news. Here’s an e-mail that Campus Bible Fellowship’s president, Kylyn Magee, received at 6:02 pm yesterday:

 

From: Rick Danals [mailto:rick.danals@wright.edu]
Sent: Monday, March 02, 2009 6:02 PM
To: Kylyn Magee
Cc: halloway.2@wright.edu; glen.jones@wright.edu; ‘Dan Abrahamowicz’; ‘Gary Dickstein’; ‘Viki Harness’
Subject: Campus Bible Fellowship

Dear Kylyn:

This is a follow up on the registration status of Campus Bible Fellowship.  As consistent with the communication Gwen Mattison, University General Counsel, had with a representative of FIRE, on Thursday, February 26, 2009, your organization will be registered for the remainder of the academic year through June 12, 2009.  Your organization will need to attend training and apply for registered status consistent with all other student organizations on campus to be registered for the 2009-2010 academic year.  Registered organizations will receive notification through their OrgSync account for the May training sessions.  Your registration application on OrgSync was reopened last Thursday.

[…]

If you have any questions, please contact me.

Rick Danals, Ph.D.
Director of Student Activities
Wright State University
3640 Colonel Glenn Highway
Dayton, OH 45435
937-775-5543
937-775-5573 (fax)

Now isn’t that interesting! Mattison herself would not confirm her conversation with FIRE, but Rick Danals actually citesthe conversation when telling CBF that it has been re-recognized. And by the way, this e-mail acknowledges the fact that the group was notrecognized until now when it says “Your registration application on OrgSync was reopened last Thursday.” Why would it need to be reopened if the organization had been registered?

As if its deception on the matter of recognition wasn’t bad enough, Wright State has also seen fit to try to confuse people about the nature of its own unconstitutional decision. Wright State’s statement yesterday proclaims:

Campus Bible Fellowship will have to go through the same process every other student organization has to go through for re-recognition when we do that for the fall quarter. There is no distinction between it and any other student organization on Wright State’s campus.

Unfortunately, this is simply a restatement of the problem, not the solution! The entire point of this case is that Wright State’s one-size-fits-all “nondiscrimination” language actually discriminates against religious groups because it does not allow them to require voting members and leaders to share the group’s beliefs. Wright State’s policy demands the equivalent of forcing the College Democrats to allow Republicans to become voting members and leaders of the group. This is nonsensical and violates the group’s expressive rights.

University administrators have long learned the lessons of how to sound reasonable while actually doing the unreasonable. Treating all groups equally sounds great, but if your policies are constitutionally defective, it is no defense to say that these policies are equally enforced—particularly because doing so strips the expressive rights from some groups and not others.

FIRE is glad that Wright State has re-recognized CBF and that the group will once again be able to meet on campus, at least for this semester. But the university has done nothing to address the medium- and long-term problem with its policies. The unconstitutional policy is still on the books, and Wright State is still begging for a civil rights lawsuit. Having taken the first step towards respecting the rights of the Campus Bible Fellowship, Wright State now needs to finish the job.

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