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Church State Issues

Christians sue ASU to kick atheists & gays out of Christian clubs

Dec 6, 2009

ASU group sues school over policy
State universities require signing of non-discrimination statement

Michael Clancy

The Arizona Republic

Dec. 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Arizona State University strives for a campus free of prejudice, requiring its organized student groups to sign a statement pledging not to discriminate.

But now an unregistered student group is suing ASU, alleging that its inability to ban homosexuals and non-Christians from the group infringes on the members' religious freedom.

The Christian Legal Society, which has seven members, filed a federal lawsuit Nov. 17 demanding recognition as a registered group, which would give it access to organizational and financial support from ASU. This has been denied to the group because of its refusal to sign the non-discrimination pledge. advertisement

ASU attorney Nancy Tribbensee said the Arizona Board of Regents established the non-discrimination policy, which applies to all three state universities, to protect individuals against bias on the basis of "age, ethnicity, gender, disability, color, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status."

Every other student group, including those that might have religious grounds for restricting membership, have complied with the policy, she said.

The society argues that First Amendment freedoms of association and free exercise of religion mean it should not have to comply. The society specifically wants to require its members to sign a standard statement of Christian faith, which would exclude homosexuals and non-Christian students from joining the organization, although a spokesman says such students are welcome to attend society meetings.

If the society prevails, it is likely that many other religious organizations - most of them Christian but also those representing Judaism, Islam and other religions - would seek similar waivers.

Tribbensee, who has been with the university since 1989, said she could remember no other group seeking such an exemption. Nor could she pinpoint any case in which a student complained about discrimination by a religious group.

M. Casey Mattox, a society attorney based in Washington, D.C., said no gays or non-Christians at ASU have challenged the group's requirements.

"But universities are beginning to create and apply these policies," he said. "It is becoming a real problem now. Organizations are actually being brought up on charges, defunded and kicked off campus."

That's what happened at Ohio State University, where school officials moved to revoke that Christian Legal Society's status as a registered organization after another group complained. The society sued and won a settlement allowing it to be recognized with an exemption from the university's non-discrimination policy.

The society has filed similar actions at at least six other schools. Some of them, including Ohio State and the University of Iowa, have granted exemptions to non-discrimination policies. At least one other, Penn State University, is the subject of an active lawsuit.

None of the cases has been resolved in court yet, but Tribbensee said a settlement that would exempt the society from the regents' policies "is not our current strategy."

Registered student organizations at ASU are entitled to a variety of benefits, including funding through the Associated Students of Arizona State University.

Such benefits are a cause for concern, said ASU law professor Paul Bender, an expert on civil rights.

"I would think ASU has the right to push non-discrimination policies," he said, "while CLS is entitled to organize and pray, but not to receive support from the state."

He said the society is not a church as commonly recognized, but a student organization.

"Once you allow them to discriminate, you open the way to exactly the kind of discrimination that is odious in this country," he said.

Representatives of other religious-based student organizations say the university's non-discrimination policies have not been a problem, even though many of them find homosexuality, especially, to be a problem. Some of them say they want to reach out to non-Christians and homosexuals, who they believe to be living outside church beliefs.

"Everybody is welcome," said the Rev. Fred Lucci, a chaplain at All Saints Catholic Newman Center at ASU. "When someone comes here, they can expect to learn what Catholic teaching is." They will be told that they may form their own consciences on various issues, and ultimately they might not stay, he said.

Many such groups restrict leadership to students who are members of a religion or sign a statement of faith, but that has never become an issue, Tribbensee said.

"When there are no complaints," she said, "we presume things are going well."