The University of Virginia says it will not recognize a conservative club because the organization limits its membership to those who affirm conservative principles.
In a letter on Friday, lawyers for Young America’s Foundation said the university’s policy is “unconstitutional” and violates state law.
“A pro-choice club may deny leadership positions to pro-life students, and a gun control group may determine that it does not wish to extend membership to NRA members,” Casey Mattox, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in the letter. “Yet, by the terms of this policy — and its application here — religious and political student groups are specifically barred from instituting requirements for leadership and voting membership based on the beliefs their organizations seek to promote.”
It’s the latest dispute pitting colleges and universities against religious and political student clubs that restrict membership or leadership positions to those who support their mission.
Business Leaders in Christ sued the University of Iowa earlier this month after the small student ministry was kicked off campus for denying a leadership position to a gay student who did not adhere to the club’s scriptural beliefs. The university told the club to “revise” its doctrine and submit an “acceptable plan” for choosing leaders in order to be allowed back on campus.
Young America’s Foundation (YAF) is an organization dedicated to advancing the conservative cause at America’s colleges and universities. The 57-year-old group has chapters on hundreds of campuses nationwide. Members are required to affirm the organization’s founding document, the “Sharon Statement,” which was drafted at the home of late conservative luminary William F. Buckley Jr.
In a Nov. 5 letter to YAF, Ty Zirkle, vice president for organizations at the UVA Student Council, said requiring members to affirm the Sharon Statement violates the university’s policy against “political affiliation” discrimination.
“Support for the Sharon Statement can absolutely be included in the mission/purpose section of the constitution and will naturally attract interested students, but it cannot be a membership requirement,” Mr. Zirkle wrote.
He recommended “removing some wording from the bylaws that give the executive board the ability to terminate membership on any basis” so as to bring the club’s “practices in line with University policy.”
VA Code Ann. § 23.1-400 holds that student organizations at public universities may conduct activities “in furtherance of the organization’s religious or political mission,” and “only persons committed to that mission should conduct such activities.” These activities include “ordering the organization’s internal affairs, selecting the organization’s leaders and members, defining the organization’s doctrines, and resolving the organization’s disputes[.]”
Mr. Mattox maintained that the “plain text of this law prohibits the University of Virginia from denying recognition to or otherwise discriminating against” YAF.
“On this ground alone, the decision to deny recognition to YAF-UVA was illegal,” he wrote.
The University of Virginia’s decision also violated the right to freedom of association guaranteed in First Amendment, Mr. Mattox said.
Pointing to U.S. Supreme Court precedent protecting the right of “like-minded individuals to associate for the purpose of expressing commonly held views,” Mr. Mattox said public universities violate the First Amendment rights of their students by conditioning club recognition, and the government benefits that come with it, on the abandonment of the “right to associate with persons who share their beliefs.”
YAF spokesman Spence Brown said it’s ironic that this dispute is taking place at the school founded by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
“Our students’ speech and association rights are being violated by administrators at the University of Virginia,” Mr. Brown said in a statement. “Our demand is simple — recognize the YAF chapter and change this illegal policy.”
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