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Historical Amnesia at Rutgers

October 17, 2017

On Tuesday, Dave Imbriaco, a Rutgers student majoring in history, published an op-ed in the Rutgers student newspaper challenging the notion that Christian students are being discriminated against at public university across the country.  I’m glad he wrote the piece because it allows us to look back on a snapshot of Rutgers’ history and clarify the well-established law that so many students, faculty and administrators are mistaken about. 

In 2002, Rutgers banned the InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship from campus because it required leaders to “adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives.”  Imagine that, the group actually had the gall to try to preserve its biblical mission by requiring Christian leaders.  InterVarsity eventually had to sue in federal district court to regain its status on campus, which forced Rutgers’ hand and resulted in a settlement restoring InterVarsity to campus.  Was this incident isolated?  No.  In fact, this April the Supreme Court will hear argument in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a case similar to InterVarsity’s that grew out of a similar ban at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Mr. Imbriaco’s op-ed asserts that he “cannot also help but notice the incredibly painful irony in the claim that Christian students are somehow being ‘oppressed’ in any way.”  I think InterVarsity would disagree.  Throwing a group off campus because of its faith-based leadership requirements sounds oppressive to me.  To be sure, the same thing didn’t happen to the College Republicans and College Democrats at Rutgers, nor did it happen to other religious groups. 

In response to the growing threat of indoctrination by campus administrators and faculty, Mr. Imbriaco claims that indoctrination is nothing more than “a free-flowing exchange of ideas where people that [sic] are better at describing one’s world take precedence over those that are not. Good ideas stay in the mix and are improved upon, and bad ideas are weeded out and discarded.”  I think Julea Ward and Emily Brooker would disagree, as would the students at the University of Delaware.  All of them were told to change their beliefs and ideas in order to conform to campus orthodoxy.  In Ms. Ward’s case, the university expelled her for not changing her beliefs on the issue of homosexual behavior.  Ward wasn’t allowed to have her ideas heard, let alone considered.  Mandating change in personal beliefs is not “a free-flowing exchange of ideas,” it is indoctrination, and it is unconstitutional.  As the Supreme Court said in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette:  “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

With respect to censorship of Christians on campus, Mr. Imbriaco writes that this is merely “rejection of a system of describing the universe that no longer explains what it claims to explain. In other words, it’s not that we’re actively censoring Christian perspectives on campus. Rather, we’ve decided that these perspectives are outdated, irrelevant or just plain silly in this modern age.”  Wait, I thought Mr. Imbriaco wanted a “free-flowing exchange of ideas?”  Obviously not.  Mr. Imbriaco’s logic follows those of campus speech codes, which have been uniformly struck down by every court that has considered them.  Universities should encourage debate and discussion of ideas, not prohibit them from the start as Imbriaco contends.  Yet, according to a study by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, fifty-five percent of students said religious individuals should be careful “not to offend people while spreading their beliefs.”  Every great idea in history started out as being “silly” or unorthodox in some way.  But if universities functioned the way Mr. Imbriaco believes they should, those ideas would have never emerged because those in the majority would have been able to stifle them.  That is not a reflection of the historical “marketplace of ideas” that colleges and universities are supposed to be.  Ideas come and go in a free society, but it is not the government’s place to decide which are allowed and which are not.

Mr. Imbriaco then postulates that even if discrimination against Christians does occur, the “law states that institutions that receive government funding must not participate in any kind of religious indoctrination or create an environment that favors one religious group over another.”  That’s about as accurate as saying the sky is red.  Actually, Rutgers, like all public colleges and universities, must provide equal access to all students when it comes to freedom of expression, student fee funding, student group association, etc., and the Supreme Court has held that for many years.  Treating Christians the same as other students upholds the Constitution, it doesn’t violate it.  Moreover, Imbriaco’s argument is ignorant of the historical context of the Establishment Clause, which was to ensure that the government was neutral with respect to denominations, not empower the government to act with hostility toward religion, or any other beliefs it does not approve.  As the Court said in Lynch v. Donnelly, “[n]or does the Constitution require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any.”  Similarly, in Larson v. Valente, the high Court said that the “clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.”  Thus, in the case of InterVarsity, allowing it to exist on campus just like all other student groups was consistent with the Establishment Clause, and the First Amendment’s other guarantees. 

Given that the UConn study found that one in four college students cannot name any of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment, it is not surprising that Mr. Imbriaco’s assertions are inaccurate.  But the problem in his op-ed is that it fails to articulate any facts justifying his positions.  The ADF Center for Academic Freedom has plenty of facts showing that Christians are indeed treated like second class citizens on campus.  I hope Mr. Imbriaco visits our website and learns more about the history of discrimination against Christians on campus.