(WNS) – The committee reviewing the nondiscrimination policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill likely will not recommend the school adopt an “all-comers” policy for student organizations.
Jonathan Sauls, dean of students at UNC, said this week the group did not think such a policy would benefit the school’s student body.
“There seems to be a broad consensus that migrating to an ‘all-comers’ policy would not be our recommendation,” Sauls said. “We don’t think that’s what’s warranted or needed at UNC.”
An “all-comers” policy would require religious groups to accept members and leaders who do not share the groups’ beliefs. Sauls co-chaired the committee of faculty and students formed to review the school’s existing nondiscrimination policy, which religious liberty experts say offers some of the best protection in the nation for campus religious groups.
The current policy has just two clauses. The first prohibits groups from restricting membership or participation based on age, race and religious affiliation, among other factors. The second clause offers an exemption for belief-based groups: “Student organizations that select their members on the basis of commitment to a set of beliefs (e.g., religious or political beliefs) may limit membership and participation in the organization to students who, upon individual inquiry, affirm that they support the organization’s goals and agree with its beliefs.”
The school adopted the policy in response to a directive issued by a federal court in 2005, and administrators decided to review it after Christian singing group Psalm 100 asked one of its members to leave because his views on homosexuality no longer matched the group’s stated beliefs.
Administrators cleared Psalm 100 of any wrongdoing, but Sauls said committee members want to make it easier in future cases to establish whether any discrimination has taken place.
“We recognize there needs to be an opportunity for groups to coalesce around commonly held beliefs,” he said. “But we need greater clarification about what those beliefs are.”
The committee’s recommendation does not represent a change to the current policy but clarifies what it means in practical application, Sauls said. The committee members agreed they wanted the UNC campus to remain inclusive and open, with administrators taking a content-neutral and least intrusive approach into the individual affairs of student organizations, Sauls said.
In reviewing UNC’s options, the committee evaluated about six different types of policies for official student organizations. Several schools-most notably Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn.-adopted “all-comers” policies in response to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in CLS v. Martinez. The court ruled that such a policy, which requires all groups to be open to all students for membership and leadership, did not violate the First Amendment. But the court did not rule on whether such a policy could still be legal if it included exceptions for some groups but not others.
Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), said he wished more schools would adopt UNC’s position and do everything they can to allow religious groups to exercise their beliefs on campus.
“Anywhere they see any restrictive anything they want to strike that out,” he said of schools that have become less tolerant of religious groups. “But that is an absolutely necessary component of the exercise of free speech.”
Tedesco recently won a dispute with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro over its refusal to recognize a pro-life group under the nondiscrimination policy’s belief-based exemption. Without the exemption, the group would have been forced to allow anyone, regardless of their beliefs about abortion, to be a member. Two weeks after the ADF filed suit on the group’s behalf, the school relented and granted the exemption.
Although the Chapel Hill policy review committee has finished its work, it has not submitted its final report to school administrators. Sauls expects to hand over the final recommendations by mid June. Administrators are not bound to accept the group’s recommendation, but Sauls is confident they will take the suggestions seriously.
“The path we chose was a good one,” he said. “We really studied the issue, including case law and best practices. I think we began to have an appreciation that there’s a lot more to this than what policy you want to have.”