CLASH OF IDEALS • FREEDOM TRUMPS MU'S NONBIAS POLICY
By Tim Townsend
Columbia, Mo. --
On a recent Sunday night, the brothers of Beta Upsilon Chi at the University of Missouri were sizing up a new pledge class.
Andrew Guthrie, president of Beta Upsilon Chi (pronounced "bucks" by the brothers), or ΒΥΧ, stood in the sanctuary of the university's A.P. Green Chapel, facing his fraternity brothers and a handful of young men. It was the end of rush week, when students shop for a fraternity or sorority.
"God, thank you for tonight," prayed Guthrie. "Thank you for getting us through another couple weeks of school. We pray for the next pledge class, that you will guide them here.
"There are fraternities for athletes, for Latinos, for agriculture students. But the 14 brothers of ΒΥΧ are not so picky. Pledges can come from any background "If they show us they have a relationship with Jesus Christ, that's really the only requirement we have," said ΒΥΧ brother Miles Steele.
But it was that single requirement that prompted university officials to demand that ΒΥΧ, which stands for Brothers Under Christ, adhere to the school's nondiscrimination policy in December. Two weeks later, the university backed down, allowing that the fraternity brothers' constitutional rights of free association, as laid out in the First Amendment, trumped the university's nondiscrimination policy.
The case exemplifies the difficult road some religious fraternities and sororities travel on public university campuses where there are church-state issues involving funding and facilities-access. It pits two fundamental constitutional principles - the right to free exercise of religion and the prohibition against the state establishing religion - against each other.
Should a student group that grants membership only to a particular stream of one religion be able to claim it is being discriminated against because it discriminates?
The first Christian fraternities, which sprang up in the 1920 and 1930s from West Virginia to Nebraska to California, were largely Methodist. But the growing presence of evangelical Christians on secular college campuses in the 1980s led, naturally, to a growth in evangelical fraternities.
The first ΒΥΧ chapter was founded at the University of Texas in Austin in 1985 "by a handful of Christian men who desired an alternative to the present fraternal lifestyle," according to its website. ΒΥΧ is the largest Christian fraternity in the U.S. with 18 chapters, 11 of which are in Texas.
In the summer of 2005, after his freshman year at Mizzou, Andrew Guthrie was a counselor at a Christian camp in his home state of Texas. Some of the other counselors were ΒΥΧ brothers at Texas schools, and when Guthrie returned to Columbia in the fall, he contacted the fraternity's national office to see what it would take to start a ΒΥΧ chapter at the university.
To start a new chapter, Guthrie and a few Christian friends went through four phases of an assessment process designed by the national office to ensure the students were ΒΥΧ quality. The assessment included answering a number of "character questions" on videotape, said Guthrie. "They'd have us talk about our faith, who you are, what you believe."
After a visit to the campus by officers of the national office, the Mizzou chapter was approved by the national board in April as the newest ΒΥΧ chapter. The fraternity then applied to the university's Organization Resource Group, which manages the school's 480 student groups, to request status as an official student organization.
That status allows student groups to apply for funding generated by student activity fees that all students pay. In the 2006-07 academic year, that money totaled $323,000.
The Organization Resource Group does not fund "social" fraternities and sororities. But according to Janna Basler, director of Greek life at Mizzou, ΒΥΧ is not a member of the Interfraternity Council, the governing body of all member fraternities, and therefore is eligible for university funding.
All this is important because church-state watchdog groups say that if a public university funds a religious group, it could be violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment, part of which says that government cannot endorse religion. But the same sentence says Americans are free to exercise their beliefs. A university's challenge is to find the appropriate balance.
All student groups in the University of Missouri system are required to include the language of the university's nondiscrimination policy in its bylaws. According to that policy, the university does not discriminate "relative to race, religion, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability or status as a Vietnam-era veteran.
"In December the university discovered ΒΥΧ had not included the nondiscrimination language in its bylaws, according to Christian Basi, a university spokesman. School officials sent Guthrie a letter asking the fraternity to add the nondiscrimination language.
In return, the university received a letter from the Christian Legal Society asking the school to re-examine its nondiscrimination policy and exempt ΒΥΧ from the policy's ban on religious discrimination, said Basi.
An attorney for the Christian Legal Society did not return calls for comment.
University attorneys reviewed the school's policy and materials submitted by ΒΥΧ's lawyers and decided it "would not require ΒΥΧ to adopt the nondiscrimination policy with respect to religion as a condition for maintaining recognition as a student organization," said Basi.
The reason? "Because our own policy states that it should not be interpreted to violate the legal rights of religious organizations."
Neil M. Richards, a professor of constitutional law at Washington University Law School, called Christian fraternities at state universities "a complicated issue."
"This is the right to associate with like-minded people versus rights of equal access," he said. "But universities, for better or for worse, allow fraternities and sororities to discriminate."
Similar Christian fraternity issues have recently challenged officials at other state schools, such as the University of North Carolina and the University of Georgia.
Historically African-American or Jewish or Latino fraternities and sororities have not faced the same challenges as the new breed of evangelical Christian because they don't restrict membership. Ruby Alvarado Hernandez, chairwoman of the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations, said many of the 23 fraternities and sororities that are members of her organization have, due to their open membership, expanded beyond their historic Hispanic origins, and have become centers of multicultural campus life.
"Private organizations are granted considerable free rein on how they identify themselves and how they establish membership criteria," said Betty A. DeBerg, a professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa and co-author of "Religion on Campus." "In the last decade, the Supreme Court has leaned more and more on the free exercise clause. It is very careful to make sure no one's religious expression is infringed upon."
Back at A.P. Green Chapel, ΒΥΧ brother Jason Moslander is talking to his current and prospective brothers about attitude and suffering. Five young men would be pinned as new pledges by the end of the night, and five more would join them later, making the current pledge class nearly the size of the active membership. In the fall, when this pledge class becomes official, Mizzou's ΒΥΧ chapter will total 24 active members just a year into its existence.
Moslander uses the New Testament as a starting point and adapts its ancient message to the life of a 19-year-old evangelical Christian.
He shares with his brothers a story from the book of Acts. The chapel is quiet as they listen to Moslander read.
In the story, the Christian missionary Paul and his companion Silas were in the Roman colony of Phillippi where Paul healed a slave girl who had made her owners wealthy telling fortunes by way of an evil spirit. The slave girl's owners, now deprived of a source of income, dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace before the city's magistrates.
"These men are disturbing our city," the girl's owners told the officials. "They are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe."
Paul and Silas were stripped and flogged by the crowd then carried off to "the innermost cell" of Phillippi's prison, where their feet were fastened in the stocks. About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.
"As a fraternity we're going to have struggles," Moslander tells his brothers, "especially since this is the beginning."