UNIVERSITY PARK, PA—Pennsylvania State University has agreed to approve DiscipleMakers, a Christian club, as a registered student organization in the face of a civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court June 21 by the Alliance Defense Fund and the Center for Law and Religious Freedom.
ADF has had three straight recent victories for free speech and religious expression rights of college students at well-known state universities. The University of Minnesota, the University of Oklahoma, and Southwest Missouri State University have all settled out of court, agreeing to rewrite policies that violated the First Amendment rights of students.
Penn State University also reversed its "uniqueness requirement" that said student organizations cannot "duplicate those of an already existing registered student organization."
"Penn State finally realized that their position is not defensible," said Benjamin Bull, chief counsel for ADF. "We are encouraged about the change in policy." The suit, DiscipleMakers v. Graham Spanier, President of The Pennsylvania State University; Vicky L. Triponey, Vice-President for Student Affairs; and Sharon Mortensen, Director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs, was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg Division.
"It’s a recipe for disaster when a university official is set up as the arbiter of a club’s theological distinctiveness," said Greg Baylor, director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom.
Baylor pointed out that registered student organizations at the university have access to many more privileges and benefits than unregistered groups, including obtaining office space, sponsoring on-campus fundraising events, using the university name, and gaining access to campus advertising media.
DiscipleMakers first applied with Penn State’s Office for Student Activities for recognition as an approved student organization in February 2003. The school’s director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs, Sharon Mortensen, reviewed the request and decided that DiscipleMakers did not meet the school’s "uniqueness requirement." She recommended that DiscipleMakers affiliate itself with a local church to demonstrate its theological uniqueness. DiscipleMakers did as Mortensen directed, but it was denied again on the same grounds. The situation changed after ADF and CLRF filed a lawsuit.
"ADF is committed to defending religious student organizations against unfair treatment by public universities that fail to respect the rights that such groups have under the Constitution," said Bull.
ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.