Thursday, November 13, 2008

Christian group gets funding despite concerns

Melanie Kucera - The Daily Iowan
Issue date: 11/11/08

A Christian-based student group that requires its members to agree to abstain from "sexual conduct" outside of "traditional marriage" was recently approved for UI Student Government funding despite concern that its mission violates the UI Policy on Human Rights.

Members of the UISG committee that allocates fees for student groups initially denied the Christian Legal Society funding based on its constitution, but the panel's members were contacted by the group's Virginia-based counsel, Casey Mattox, arguing for the $550 in funds. UISG then approved the funds at an Oct. 28 meeting.

The First Amendment protects the group's right to express its views, argued Mattox, an attorney with the Center for Law and Religious Freedom. That includes an opposition to what it considers moral or sexual impropriety - including homosexual conduct.

But, he said, despite requiring its voting members to sign the "Statement of Faith," the group doesn't preclude homosexuals from participating as non-voting members so he argues it does not violate the UI Policy on Human Rights.

"Even if you have a male student president, and he is sleeping with his girlfriend, that is an issue," Mattox said.

The group faced scrutiny in 2003-04, when the chapter formed at the UI, and the same national group's attorneys were involved before the UI finally approved the Christian Legal Society constitution. Society President Jonathan Landon, a second-year law student, pointed to the specific constitutional language that has raised eyebrows.

It requires that "members and officers of the chapter must abstain from all forms of sexual conduct and relations outside the confines of traditional marriage and/or the advocacy thereof."

Tom Baker, the associate dean of students, said he did not know of any other UI student organization that has had to bring in legal support over the past five years. He noted the "national pattern" the Christian Legal Society has faced with other public universities objecting to its constitution. Mattox said the "Statement of Faith" has raised issues on campuses for the past 10-15 years with roughly six lawsuits arising.

For example, Illinois State University's chapter sued the school after it de-recognized the group on the grounds that the "Statement of Faith" violated a university affirmative-action policy. The school reached a settlement with the group in 2007. Mattox said if the UI were to refuse funding for the group, the Center for Law and Religious Freedom would consider legal action.

"We would have certainly been willing to litigate" to protect the chapter's First Amendment rights, he said.

Student-government budget-committee member Johnathon Racine said he remains concerned about the group's statement and believes it does violate the UI Human Rights Policy.

"The membership clauses concern me," he wrote in an e-mail. "Any open [lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender] student couldn't feel fully embraced in this organization."

Racine, who has been involved with that community's issues in the UISG Senate for two years, noted that he is not trying to prohibit the religious organization from campus.

"I believe that our chapter here at the university can stand up and show how open-minded this campus is," he said. "They should say to the national organization that if they want a chapter at the University of Iowa, then they will waive this requirement."

For now, with around one-third of the funds allocated that the group requested, all parties have expressed some form of content.

Patch Cebrzynski, the chief financial officer of the budget committee, said it was never looking to single out the organization but wanted to "double-check and make sure the constitution was acceptable."

Tom Rocklin, the interim vice president for Student Services, was copied on the Center for Law and Religious Freedom's letter. He worked with the budget committee to resolve the issue.

"I feel comfortable that the student government understands the situation, and I am confident that we won't run into this problem again," Rocklin said.

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