UGA to recognize Christian fraternity; Nondiscrimination policy to be studied
By ANDREA JONES
The University of Georgia will recognize the Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi as a student organization and plans to review its policies to consider allowing religious student groups to select and limit members based on faith, UGA officials said Thursday.
The fraternity, represented by two national Christian groups who have sued at several other colleges, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in Athens on Wednesday, contending that the university refused to recognize the group because it required all of its members to pledge their belief in Jesus Christ.
UGA, like many public institutions, requires all student organizations to agree to a nondiscrimination clause saying they will extend membership and officer positions to students without regard to "age, ethnicity, gender, disability, color, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, or veteran status."
On Thursday, UGA spokesman Tom Jackson said the university would exempt the fraternity from the "religion" portion of the clause, allowing it to limit membership to Christians. Jackson said the university also will discuss amending its policy to allow an exception to religious discrimination, "much like an exception to gender discrimination is in place for same-sex social fraternities and sororities."
At a news conference Thursday morning, UGA President Michael Adams said he was "personally troubled" by what he read in the newspaper about the case and hoped a resolution could be reached.
"I'm going to put my Christian hat on for a moment --- I think there are ways that Christian people are supposed to be able to solve problems without litigation," he said. "Let's see if we can find enough common ground to both ensure no one's religious rights are abridged and secondly that the university ensures that people are not being discriminated against."
The national Alliance Defense Fund, which along with the Christian Legal Society is representing the UGA fraternity, has challenged religious nondiscrimination policies at college campuses in states like Wisconsin, California and Illinois. The University of Minnesota and Ohio State both amended their nondiscrimination policies after being sued, said Timothy Tracey, a lawyer with the Christian Legal Society.David French, an attorney with the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, said his organization has ramped up its efforts on college campuses since founding a Center for Academic Freedom this year, which he heads.
The ADF is also representing two Georgia Tech students who sued the institute last spring. The two students, Ruth Malhotra and Orit Sklar, are challenging Tech's tolerance policies in federal court. The suit called for the elimination of Tech's speech code, which has since been amended, and challenges the fact that Tech, like many public institutions, won't fund political or religious activities through student activities fees. It also alleges Tech has wrongfully allowed a gay group on campus, "Safe Space," to talk about different religions' views on homosexuality.
French said the two Georgia suits are about different issues but "share the common thread of discrimination against Christian students."The Christian fraternity at UGA, which was founded by six students in 2005 and now has more than 30 members, has 16 other chapters in the country. UGA recognized the group as a student organization last year but denied it continued recognition in November, according to the lawsuit.
While UGA has said it will now recognize the fraternity, Tracey, of the CLS, said he is concerned whether the university will make good on its plans to review and change its nondiscrimination policy. Tracey said his organization has received a phone call from another religious organization at UGA, saying that the university denied it recognition as a student organization for refusing to sign the nondiscrimination clause.
"We need a long-term solution and just saying, 'You, Beta Upsilon Chi, will be recognized,' isn't good enough," Tracey said. "We need a policy change."
UGA officials said they have not finalized plans for a policy change. At the heart, a main issue is how to amend the policy without opening it too far. The chess club, or a social fraternity for example, would not be allowed to exclude Muslim students or Christians based on their faith.Tracey said the Christian fraternity considers itself a religious organization and is not a member of the Interfraternity Council like other fraternities at UGA. The fraternity is asking just for an exemption for religious organizations.
French said a group organized around a certain set of beliefs should be allowed to choose members and leaders based on those shared beliefs.
"Whether or not you can discriminate depends directly on the nature of the organization," he said. Universities have actually ended up discriminating against religious students using policies specifically designed to prevent discrimination, he said."
They have turned the whole purpose of these policies on their head," he said.
Copyright 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution