Universities allowed to defund exclusive groups

Oct. 21, 2011, 2:40 a.m.

Universities’ retention of the right to deny funding to groups that discriminate based on religious freedom, according to a federal appeals court ruling made in August, will have a positive impact on Stanford, according to Reverend Scotty McLennan, dean of religious life.

The case centered on whether San Diego State was able to deny funding for two religious groups on campus that sought to bar non-religious members from their ranks. The federal appeals court upheld the university’s decision, agreeing that the practice of banning membership based on race, religion, sex or sexual orientation constituted an act of discrimination and that San Diego State could deny funding to such groups.

The case involved a Christian fraternity and sorority that sought to limit membership based on religious beliefs. Lawyers defending the two campus organizations claimed that such religious groups should be regarded as the same as secular organizations that rally around a common belief, such as a pro-choice advocacy organization, which would presumably not allow members who held the opposite opinion to join.

Stanford University has a similar policy as San Diego State, refusing to fund student groups that have discriminatory admission policies.

“Stanford does not fund groups that deny membership based on religion, race, or sexual orientation, nor would the University in the future,” said McLennan.

McLennan added that Stanford has a very explicit “all-comers policy.” This policy stipulates unequivocally that all student organizations must welcome and encourage participation from everyone in the Stanford student community.

“We think the opportunity to participate in the planning and leadership of activities is an important part of many students’ Stanford education,” McLennan said. “We expect groups actively to recruit and accept all students interested in a group’s activities.”

McLennan did acknowledge that groups often require certain skills or ability levels of their members. However, he said this does not violate Stanford’s policy.

“A cappella groups can audition to ensure that students can sing,” McLennan said. “But we do not consider adherence to a stated belief, race or sexual orientation to be an objective criterion.”

“Adherence to the University’s Nondiscrimination Policy is an important expectation for all groups and is something that we strongly support,” McLennan said.

Mahta Baghoolizadeh, president of the Muslim Students Awareness Network (MSAN), echoed McLennan’s opinion of the importance of Stanford’s open community.

“Anyone who wants to be a director or on the board can apply,” said Baghoolizadeh, referring to the MSAN board of directors.

“The year before I came we actually had a non-Muslim on the board because they [sic] were really interested in the Muslim world.”

Baghoolizadeh explained that the Islamic Society of Stanford University, which maintains the more religious aspects of Muslim campus life, also adheres to the non-discrimination policy and receives funding from the University.

While an unofficial University group is unable to schedule use of facilities on campus or communicate through official University channels, it can still participate actively in Stanford life, according to McLennan.

“[These groups] could still advertise on bulletin boards open to the general public,” McLennan said. “It could utilize our free speech area on campus, White Plaza and hold gatherings outside in areas that didn’t impinge on other activities… it could fund-raise for itself from non-Stanford sources.”

“In all those senses, it could maintain a presence at Stanford without official University affiliation,” McLennan added.

This policy is not unique to Stanford. After Hastings School of Law decided in 2010 to withhold funding from the Christian Legal Society, one of the actions that brought about the ruling of the court of appeals this summer, the organization still maintained a strong presence on campus.

“The CLS continued to host a variety of activities along the lines described above and even doubled the number of students attending its meetings after losing its official university recognition,” McLennan said.

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