Religious student groups have the same constitutional right to associate as other groups. Just as political and ethnic groups have the ability to meet together on your campus and select their members and leaders based on the shared values of those groups, religious groups can associate freely on campus and set membership and leadership standards for their groups.
The freedom of association is interrelated with the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and assembly: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, . . . or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”14 The Freedom of Assembly Clause protects the rights of citizens to engage in lawful public assemblies, to make public speeches, to discuss their own affairs, and to enlist the support of others.15 Only the “gravest abuses, endangering paramount interests” will permit the government to intrude upon this right.16
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that the right of free speech would be virtually meaningless without a corollary right to join with others to advance First Amendment freedoms.17 This implicit freedom preserves citizens’ rights to form organizations, to advance particular viewpoints, and to associate with like-minded individuals18 “in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural ends.”19 Like many freedoms, the freedom of association is not absolute, but it can only be overridden by a government regulation that “serves compelling state interests [interests of the highest order], unrelated to the suppression of ideas, that cannot be achieved through means significantly less restrictive of associational freedoms.”20 This high standard provides vast protection for associational freedoms, as it is extremely difficult for public universities and other government bodies to overcome.
Even so, virtually every major public university has policies that directly infringe upon this freedom. University “nondiscrimination” policies are one of the primary threats to the freedom of association on campus because they can be used to dictate the leadership and/or membership criteria of expressive student organizations. Often, universities will use these policies to prevent organizations from receiving campus-wide benefits or even being recognized as official groups if they select leaders and members who share the group’s mission and goals, claiming that these organizations “discriminate” based on “religion,” “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” and/or “political persuasion.” Such policies can force a religious organization to accept as members and leaders persons who engage in religious or sexual practices that directly conflict with its religious beliefs. They also can force a politically-oriented student organization to accept as members and leaders persons who directly oppose its political goals. So, a Christian organization could be forced to accept as president an atheist student or a person who engages in homosexual behavior, while the College Republicans could be compelled to accept a left-leaning Democrat as its leader. Not only are these results ludicrous, but they are also patently unconstitutional.