WASHINGTON — Republicans in South Carolina’s congressional delegation, worried about battles over religious freedom in other states, are warning colleges in the state not to interfere with campus religious groups.
“We believe that religious student organizations have the right to determine their own statements of faith or belief and that under constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and freedom of association, these credos do not preclude recognition by South Carolina universities, colleges or technical colleges,” the six House members and two senators said in a letter to the presidents of 86 public and private colleges in the state.
The letter cites a controversy last year in which a Christian fellowship organization lost recognition on California State University campuses because it refused to abandon a requirement that its leaders sign a statement affirming their Christian faith. The university system’s policy is that official student groups, which benefit from the use of campus facilities and inclusion in campus events, can’t discriminate against anyone who might want be elected to a leadership position.
“The impact of this unfortunate decision will be a diminishing of freedom of association,” the lawmakers wrote.
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Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens, said he’s not aware of a specific threat to Christian student groups on South Carolina campuses. He said he organized the letter to be “proactive.”
“The actions in California are deeply troubling, and it’s important for us to speak up now before other academic institutions may be tempted to follow suit,” Duncan said.
The Cal State issue did not involve membership, as the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship allowed anyone to join. But the group ran afoul of the public university system’s rules when it wouldn’t sign the non-discrimination policy as it applies to leadership elections. Under the policy, a non-Christian could technically vie for the presidency of a Christian group, and a Christian could vie for the presidency of a non-Christian group.
Cal State did not ban InterVarsity or Christian groups from its campuses and did not prohibit members of the groups from asking leadership candidates about their religious views.
“Organizations are free to hold candidate forums or debates, and students are free to vote for candidates who best represent their views,” according to a statement from Cal State.
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina said nothing prevents religious organizations from assembling or worshiping together on college campuses.
“The issue is subsidizing discrimination against others through giving official university recognition and assistance,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “Creating new state laws in South Carolina that legitimize discrimination is not going to make our state more inclusive and welcoming.”
The South Carolina lawmakers are encouraging the state General Assembly to consider legislation to “affirmatively protect the religious freedom of campus groups.” A pending bill would prohibit colleges from withholding benefits to student religious associations based on their requirements that their leaders adhere to certain religious beliefs.
Duncan said the delegation’s letter went to private and public colleges “in order to promote discourse on this topic.”