Should public universities dictate how student organizations select their leaders?
Currently, the Department of Education requires federally funded public university campuses to let religious student organizations choose their own leaders. So, for example, if a Muslim group on campus wants to elect leaders that are also Muslim, the university couldn’t stop it from doing so—nor should it.
After all, public universities are required to comply with the First Amendment.
In September 2020, the DOE took action to make sure this was the case, enacting regulations that made it illegal for any public university to have a hand in deciding who should lead religious student organizations.
But the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) filed a lawsuit against the DOE, trying to strip students of their First Amendment right to gather around the beliefs they share—a right that even SSA benefits from.
The First Amendment at Public Universities
It’s no secret that support for diverse opinions on college campuses across the country is waning. SSA’s lawsuit is one of the latest examples of this.
SSA believes that groups like Ratio Christi, a nationwide Christian apologetics organization, shouldn’t have the freedom to select leaders who align with the organization’s beliefs. To be clear, Ratio Christi is open to all students. But, logically, the organization requires its leaders to share its religious beliefs.
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom is defending the DOE’s speech protections by seeking to intervene in this lawsuit on behalf of Ratio Christi.
“Universities should model the First Amendment values they’re supposed to be teaching students; they should not have unilateral power to dictate how student organizations select their leaders,” said ADF Senior Counsel Matt Bowman. “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of association—that is, the right to gather around shared beliefs.”
The DOE’s current regulations that require universities to abide by the First Amendment not only benefit Christian organizations—they also benefit organizations like SSA. Just as Ratio Christi should have the freedom to elect leaders that share its religious beliefs, SSA should be protected to elect leaders that align with its beliefs.
To give public universities the power to dictate who leads religious student organizations would strip the First Amendment rights of all students at those universities.
The Future of the Department of Education
The DOE enacted these free speech protections while former President Trump was in office and has not yet indicated if it will roll back these protections under the Biden administration.
While ADF cannot predict what the Biden administration will do, we remain committed to defending students’ freedom of speech and assembly and will stay involved in the case as long as these freedoms are threatened.
You can help stand with us and raise awareness about threats to students’ First Amendment rights by sharing this blog with friends and family today.
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