Friday, February 1, 2013

Anti-Discrimination Policy

EDIT - please see discussion at the end of the article over the phrasing of student organizations as "registered" or "recognized."  Article has been edited to adjust all to "registered;" again, read on why.

The University of Michigan's Center for Campus Involvement (CCI) has recently refused to re-recognize re-register a student group on campus, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (ICF), because of a provision in the group's constitution that required student officers to sign a statement of faith.  The Center claims that the policy is not in line with the Anti-Discrimination Policy that the University put in place in 1980, I think specifically the general policy statement in the EEO/Affirmative Action Policy that dates from at least 1980 (my emphasis):
"The University is committed to compliance with all applicable laws regarding non-discrimination.  Furthermore, it shall strive to build a diverse community in which opportunity is equal for all persons regardless of race, sex, color, religion, creed, national origin or ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era veteran status.  It shall exert its leadership for the achievement of this goal by all parties which it recognizes or with which students or employees of the University are involved."
What this essentially means is that the University is no longer offering services to ICF that come with being a registered and recognized student organization – free room rentals from the Student Organization Accounting Services, advertising space, floor space for fundraisers or event promotions, office equipment, and so on.  As the University owns and operates these spaces and services, they have a right to withhold or otherwise condition use of these resources.

De facto this means that if ICF wants to meet, they will not be able to find a space on campus to do so.  This is how they have been "forced" off of campus; the group's operations will be hurt to the extent that these lost privileges can't be made up for with extra funding or donated services and space.  But, the University has not taken from the group what it hasn't granted every year when ICF was able to successfully register.

Special rights?

Our President has recently written about the issue herself, noting that the ICF's insistence to not follow the University's Anti-Discrimination Policy – which every other student group has to follow – is indicative of a mentality that refusing to accord special rights is tantamount to refusing to accord rights outright (sorry).  It's difficult to come to a different interpretation when ICF's national field director Greg Jao says that the University just doesn't "understand" religious people:
"I think it sends the message that the university does not understand the nature of religious beliefs and the convictions of religious students."
You see, religious people are different.  They have beliefs, and have strong convictions toward these beliefs.  As such, they shouldn't have to follow the same rules as everyone else.

The argument is, of course, ridiculous and I would argue slanderous.  The University has recognized registered over 30 other Christian (not just religious, specifically Christian) student organizations; either the University is clearly not suffering from this lack of understanding of the desires of religious students, or other religious student groups aren't suffering from their beliefs and convictions getting in the way of following the rules through which they receive the privileges of student group recognition registration.  But in no way is the University displaying discrimination, and in no way are they marginalizing Christian religious beliefs.

This specific example of "marginalization" comes down to this student group deciding not to follow a policy that they disagreed with – and I would be quite fine if they want to start a dialogue about whether the application of the Anti-Discrimination Policy in this fashion is necessary to carrying out the spirit of the policy itself.  There can be a dialogue on whether the University can cede their comprehensive policy here to allow stronger freedom of association; there are members in our own group even that feel the policy is somewhat silly.  But that's not the dialogue that Jao is trying to start; he's too wrapped up in his false illusion of acclaim to special privilege, too eager to make accusations of discrimination such that he can't possibly be a serious voice in a dialogue where this policy might be objected to from a broader and more independent sense.

Our own policies

The comments sections to online news articles in general aren't worth the pixels they're displayed in.  However, considering the degree to which some people accusing our group of exercising similar exclusionary practices have been supported (granted, it's a FOX article), it may in this case be worth dispelling this lie, too.

Like ICF was, we are also a registered student organization on campus, and we had to write a constitution that details membership and leadership requirements.  The constitution is publicly available, and can be found here, but I'll quote all the same:
Most meetings and events are open to the general public, and anyone who desires may be added to the email list (subject to the outlined disciplinary procedures).  To be eligible to run for office and participate in voting, a member must attend at least half of all weekly meetings in the year prior to a vote, or alternatively at least half of all weekly meetings since the year the member joined (if more than one year).  This status is available to student, alumni, or members of the general public.  SSA does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, religion, height, weight, or veteran status."
One of our core objectives as a group is to foster dialogue with the diverse religious community on campus.  We have co-sponsored events with religious groups, we have invited religious groups to come have discussions with us, and we have some regular attendees who are religious.  Most of our members are atheists or agnostics – that's not very unexpected from a group whose goals are also to provide a community for non-believers and promote secularism.  All of our officers identify as atheists – that's not very unexpected from a group comprised of mainly irreligious members who take an active part in democratically electing our board (I'm of the opinion that ICF probably faces the same non-issue of subversive campaigning for positions of authority within their group).

Again, our policies are public; our operations are open to the public as well.  We are subject to the same standards of student organizations as ICF was; we are subject to the same Anti-Discrimination Policy; and we are subject to our own objectives of developing critical thinking skills in people and fostering discussion, which would only be hindered by disallowing the possibility of religious members coming to our meetings or even holding officer positions.  I would invite everyone who wants to criticize our group (in fact, any other of the non-Christian groups on campus implicated in those comments) to first do the basic research necessary to establish that you even have a correct mental picture of what we stand for.


ICF has formed a Facebook page to gather some support for their cause.  While not (yet?) likely gathering much external support, there was some interesting discussion on the distinction between whether a student organization is considered "registered" or if it is considered "recognized" – the distinction is relevant from a legal-phrasing perspective because of the way that the incorporation of student groups is detailed in the above excerpt from the Anti-Discrimination Policy: "by all parties which it recognizes or with which students or employees of the University are involved."

Is this important?  It's at least correct - the current Central Student Government (CSG) constitution says that student organizations may "register" with CSG, and "registration" is the process and status detailed on the Maize Pages (student organization info) website.  There is intermittent usage of "recognized," which annoys me since it's ambiguous, but it seems that "registered" is the most used term and the one that's in all the headings, so I don't think there's much an argument to suggest it's not.

Whether it's completely relevant isn't clear; the discussion on the Facebook page suggested that this issue had come up with MSA (Michigan Student Assembly, recently renamed and restructured to CSG) back in the 1980s, which makes sense since this Anti-Discrimination Policy dates to 1980.  Then, Christians on campus had organized to become elected to MSA, and implement changes to the policy (like switching "recognized" to "registered") to allow their groups to choose their own leadership (or discriminate against people who don't share their views, pick your poison).

Again, "registered" is still the common term, so what changed?  And I ask that quite sincerely since I don't know what has; there was a push in 2009/2010 from Students for Progressive Governance to have a 'constitutional convention' to replace the MSA constitution, but that failed and I can't see how the current verbiage would help to turn the tide back toward implementing the Anti-Discrimination Policy.  Maybe the group is being covered under the "or with which students or employees of the University are involved" phrasing?

Any legal precedent?

One case I've heard mentioned to support the Anti-Dirimination Policy interpretation is CLS v. Martinez, which was a 2010 Supreme Court case which determined that a university could compel its student organizations to admit anyone into their student groups, regardless of their beliefs or status.  There are two distinctions in this case from the present situation: first off, the ICF (which I should probably be labeling AIVCF, as it's the Asian InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group specifically; but I'm too lazy to change them all now...) indeed does allow everyone to come to their meetings; this is a question about leadership, not about membership.  The second distinction is that Hastings College of the Law (the university in question in the afore-mentioned case) had an "all–comers" policy, which seems to be different than an anti-discrimination policy.

It's not really clear to me the exact distinction between the two types of policy; Justice Alito argued in his dissent to the case that in the case where it was an anti-discrimination policy being used to exclude members, then actually the university probably would not have that right to compel groups to include regardless of beliefs (but they could compel to accept regardless of legally-protected status).  The majority opinion argued that at least when it came to homosexuality, there was no distinction – since AIVCF has a provision in their constitution that disallows homosexuals from being leaders, I think this reasoning would be applicable.

But that question might be moot if the leadership v. membership distinction is important.  I can see how it could be, but the rationale behind the Martinez case isn't useless either just because of that distinction. I would agree that it's not direct precedent, though.

There have been several other cases within the past few decades about religious student groups, and even student groups in general and what universities are allowed to restrict or compel their groups to do.  I have not seen one that shows direct precedent for this leadership issue, but will update this blog post again if I do.  Until now, the Martinez case is the most relevant, but that's not saying too much.

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