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Schools criticized on First Amendment rights

BY HAYLEY BRUCE | NOVEMBER 11, 2010 7:20 AM

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Members of the Christian Legal Society said it is unclear how a pending lawsuit will affect the University of Iowa chapter of the student organization, and an attorney on the case said such action is just one example of universities across the nation taking a more paternal stance on the First Amendment rights of their students.

Casey Mattox, who served as legal counsel on the Christian Legal Society v. Martinez case, spoke to UI students on Wednesday about First Amendment rights and the importance of students uniting against universities when they infringe upon them. The event was cosponsored by the UI Federalist Society.

"Where we are is a sad and radical departure from the understanding of universities as the marketplace of ideas," Mattox said.

The Christian Legal Society v. Martinez case focused on the portion of the group's constitution that banned gay and lesbians from serving as officers or voting members.

The June 28 U.S. Supreme Court decision — now remanded — could have forced the student organization to either change its constitution or face the possibility of losing university funding.

But the pending status of the decision has placed university administrators and group members in a difficult spot when deciding how to move forward.

UI Christian Legal Society President Thomas Williams said the group has not struggled because of the Martinez ruling, because the group didn't apply for UI funding this semester.

"If we needed funding, we would have applied for it," he said, and the group's activities — which include Bible studies, meetings, social events, and volunteer activities — typically do not require a lot of money. "Our activities are small in nature, and they're not things that require outside funding to do. They just require us to get together."

Lyndsay Harshman, the head of the Executive Council of Graduate and Professional Students, said she wasn't aware of any changes in its status as a student organization and doesn't have a reason to believe its funding would change.

Mattox said that while he was disappointed with the court's decision, it would have limited effect on other universities because the court dealt with an all-comers' rule that no schools have, and many student groups have statements in their constitution similar to that of the Christian Legal Society.

"Christian Legal Society is not alone," he said. "It is very common for a student group to say, 'If you want to hold a leadership position, you have to agree with what this organization is about.' "

Mattox said if universities began to adopt all-comers policies — which would exclude all discriminatory requirements to join a group, including sex — there would be a "radical change" in organizations on campus.

Williams said he does not feel the Christian Legal Society violated the human-rights discrimination policy.

"Everyone is welcome to attend all of our events," he said. "We just want to make sure that the office of our group adheres to the beliefs that our group was founded on."

Mattox said that contrary to other beliefs, Christian Legal Society is not trying to violate discrimination laws, the group actually serves and an advocates for the protection of First Amendment rights.

"In my view, what groups like Christian Legal Society are doing are defending the rights of all student groups on campus, not simply Christian groups," he said.


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