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Group’s faith rule stirs clash at Tufts University

Debate centers on freedom, bias

In a collision between religious freedom and nondiscrimination codes, Tufts University is considering whether an evangelical Christian student group should be stripped of its official status for requiring that its leaders adhere to the faith, saying it violates school policies against religious discrimination.

An arm of the student government recently voted to withdraw recognition of the Tufts Christian Fellowship because its constitution requires that its leaders celebrate “the basic biblical truths of Christianity.”

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That provision violates the nondiscrimination clause that governs student groups, student leaders said. The group has appealed the decision to a faculty committee. If the ruling is upheld, the group would lose its funding and permission to use the college’s name.

The ruling has drawn an angry reaction from religious and First Amendment groups and been panned as political correctness run amok.

Greg Jao, national field director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, the group’s parent organization, said the reasoning behind the withdrawn status struck him as “illogical, and a little bizarre.”

“Groups can only exist if their leaders can affirm the reason for that group’s existence,” he said.

Similar disputes over Christian student groups have arisen on campuses across the country in recent years, particularly since a 2010 Supreme Court decision affirmed that public colleges could legally require student groups to accept anyone who wished to join.

‘In almost every case, universities are proactively saying if you have any leadership requirements you’re automatically discriminatory’

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That case involved a Christian group that barred gay students and nonbelievers from becoming part of its leadership team.

Colleges say they can’t abide such discrimination, and that religious beliefs cannot excuse it. But critics say the policies unfairly target religious groups and reveal hostility to evangelical beliefs.

“It’s an absurd level of mandated openness that actually diminishes diversity,” said David French, a senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice who has represented campus groups in dozens of similar cases. “It’s utterly antithetical to free expression.”

French and other critics said mandating that student groups take all-comers creates “silly and impractical situations.”

In its constitution, the Tufts Christian Fellowship says it is “open to all students,” but requires that leaders “seek to exemplify” values such as humility, honesty, concern for the poor, sexual chastity, and respect for biblical authority.

Adam Sax, chairman of the student government group, said the ruling did not arise from a complaint, and did not involve specific allegations of discrimination. He declined to elaborate on the decision.

The university said the Tufts Christian Fellowship maintains its current privileges while its appeal is pending, and that the school is committed to both religious freedom and nondiscrimination.

“We recognize that this case raises complex as well as deeply felt issues,” said Kim Thurler, a Tufts spokeswoman.

Jao said many college groups, from athletic teams to Greek organizations, are exclusive on some level, but that many campuses have “fixated on religious groups” when enforcing nondiscrimination codes.

Jao said campus Christian Fellowship chapters include thousands of members who are not Christians, but that leaders must follow the tenets of the faith. He said the group does not discriminate against homosexuals, and that gay students have become leaders. All leaders, straight and gay, are asked to practice chastity, he said.

But Jao said most campus disputes arise not from specific discrimination complaints, but from the policy in general.

“In almost every case, universities are proactively saying if you have any leadership requirements you’re automatically discriminatory,” he said.

A leader of the Tufts group, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid scrutiny from the news media and students, said the issue has broad ramifications for how religious groups can govern themselves.

“The question facing our campus is, ‘How do we handle religious groups? Is there a religious caveat?” the student asked. “We think it’s important to have clarity.”

As a private college, Tufts has wide latitude to enforce its own rules. Religious groups say many campuses have created a religious exemption from antidiscrimination policies that allow clubs to choose their own leaders.

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said restrictions on Christian groups reveal a thinly veiled hostility to the faith’s stance on social issues, including abortion and gay rights.

“There’s an ideal of conformity,” he said. “They are saying that everyone has to think the same way, which seems contrary to the idea of a university.”

On campus, many students agreed with the decision to strip the group of its status. Sophia Laster, who belongs to a campus coalition against religious exclusion, said she believes some members of the Christian group believe homosexuality is morally wrong.

“I think that TCF likes to hide behind the idea of religious freedom and that they are being persecuted, when they are persecuting others,” she said.

Talia Hulkower, a freshman, said she thinks no student group should be allowed to discriminate against its own members.

“I think it’s strange that there would be a group on campus that is discriminatory, because it is the most open campus,” Hulkower said.

Parker Heyl, another student, said the group should be punished if it violated the antidiscrimination policy. Heyl, a Catholic, belongs to Tufts Hillel, the college’s Jewish organization, because he likes its commitment to community service.

“The club didn’t even blink an eye when I said I was Christian,” Heyl said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete. Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@globe.com.
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