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One, Two, Three, Four . . . Erm... What Exactly Are We Fighting For?

As mentioned in an other place, today the Student Senate held a town hall meeting on revisions to our guidelines for student groups. Apparently it's another recurrence of the now perpetual controversy: should groups like the Christian Legal Society be allowed to restrict their leadership to those who hold certain beliefs? The flashpoint, of course, is sexuality. [1] It's part and parcel with the kind of disputes that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education spends a lot of time litigating. The whole business seems . . . well, a matter of much heat and little light.

(I acquired a copy of the Columbia Law School's Christian Legal Society constitution and in party-game fashion counted the reasons I couldn't be an officer of theirs. Wholly without violating Romans 1:27, I count around fourteen reasons I wouldn't be allowed to run. Well, maybe thirteen if they define idolatry more stringently than I would, but in fairness it would be fifteen if I got invited to better orgies.)

I am, of course, considering this from my rather pragmatic perspective. Pragmatically, I'm going to put the rest of this long entry below the fold.

Let us change names for the sake of argument. Suppose that Belief Group A and the majority of its membership, at the time of adoption of a constitution, believes that Practice X is in fact immoral and antithetical to the beliefs on which they're organized. [2] They are sincere in this belief such that any open Practitioner X has little practical chance of winning an open election. Finally, Belief Group A is in a minority as part of the Polity, and in fact the Polity as a whole is strongly supportive of Practice X.

There are two reasons I can see for Belief Group A to institute a policy requiring all of its candidates to abstain from Practice X, reasons I'll call Policy Entrenchment and Hijack Prevention.

Policy Entrenchment: In this scenario, the leadership of Belief Group A thinks that its members beliefs may be changing, and there may soon be at least a considerable minority of the group who does not object to Practice X. A constitutional requirement thus enshrines the present leadership's beliefs as group policy, and would require a massive change in membership to alter. (Even assuming that the constitution can be changed by majority vote, so long as the present members of Belief Group A are strongly anti-Practice X at adoption, a large shift will be necessary to change the policy.) In a Policy Entrenchment scenario, a restrictive leadership requirement thus functions something like a dead hand poison pill, and is objectionable for much the same reasons.

Hijack Prevention: Belief Group A fears that the views of its most active members are not changing, but its larger environment has shifted towards support of Practice X. It thus faces a choice: find some way to restrict its membership only to those already of a given viewpoint--at potentially high cost--or risk the chance that in a future election, a number of supporters of Practice X will "join" the group, vote in candidates who do not actually share Belief Group A's principles, and for all intents and purposes end the group.

Obviously, there may be other ways to prevent this kind of hijacking. The group could charge prohibitively high membership fees, for instance, although this may also discourage legitimate membership. They might limit voting to "active" members (those who have attended more than a certain number of events), but this imposes record-keeping requirements that may be wasteful for a smaller group. And of course, an environment of gentlemanly trust and acceptance would render this worry completely unnecessary, but we're talking about U.S. higher education today.

(There are a few other concerns outside of Hijack Prevention or Policy Entrenchment. Suppose that Practitioner X is not open about their activities (either within or outside the polity). The leadership of Belief Group A might wish to avoid any future candidate having an incentive to make those activities public to the Polity as a whole. But this is rather incidental to the reasons above.)

So the question then becomes: is it more likely that a group putting this rule in place is more worried about Policy Entrenchment or Hijack Prevention? To take my little blinders above off, do we think that the CLS is worried that there are vast numbers of members who wish to vote in a homosexual leadership, or that there will be in three or four years? Or do with think that some politically motivated electoral skullduggery on behalf of an activist or two is a reasonable fear? Perhaps one reason for passing general "antidiscrimination" rules isn't so much that there's a huge amount of real discrimination going on--actual candidates who really want to run actual groups in accordance with their members' wishes--but because it gives one side of a debate a funding club with which to hit their ideological opponents?

If the CLS dropped its membership requirements, would they be at risk of sudden infiltration by non-Christians who wish to wreck their fellowship? On the other hand, has the rule as it stands actually been used to block a candidate for leadership in the CLS who is both homosexual, somewhere within the rational definition of an active member and a halfway viable (i.e. more than protest) candidate? My initial impression is that hijack prevention is the more significant threat, but I've been unable to come up with a single documented case of a Christian law society being infiltrated in such a manner.

Which leads one to wonder whether there is any pragmatic reason to be concerned about this at present. True, the current Christian Legal Society constitution discriminates against homosexuals. It also bars wiccans, wholly heterosexual sybarites and myself, but I guess we don't have organized grievance groups. So long as none of us are actually active members, and no active but disqualified member is trying to run . . . where's the fire?

Ah well. However far the debate has descended, at least it hasn't reached the stage of Birmingham University, where the Student Union has apparently removed recognition from the Christian Union for many of the same underlying reasons. Supposedly among the Student Union's complaints? The use of the words "men" and "women" in the CU constitution might be seen as excluding transgendered and transsexual people.

[1]: It's funny that this typically comes up in the context of Christian organizations and homosexuality. One could imagine a radical feminist group wanting to restrict it leadership such that members of Conversio Virium (Columbia's BDSM discussion group) would be unable to hold leadership positions. Or come to think of it, a BDSM group wishing to restrict its leadership such that it isn't taken over by a traditional values coalition.) There's one case I've been shown in which the conflict was between different groups of Christians, but for the most part it's a religion and sexuality issue.

[2]: In case you think the name changing is needlessly pedantic, it's worth pointing out that one practice proscribed by the copy of the CLS constitution that I have is witchcraft. In theory, a group of witches (or wicca, members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, or what have you) could find themselves just as aggrieved by the CLS policy as anyone else. As a practical matter, this is unlikely at this law school: I don't think we have a wiccan group here.

Certainly, it's unlikely--though not impossible--that a wiccan would consider themselves Christian in the first place, but one could think of some forms of belief--albeit particularly rare--that some might consider part of Christianity and others would consider witchcraft. Yet by the time we get into wondering whether the Christian Legal Society's constitution would bar a practitioner of Enochian mysticism, we truly are beyond the bounds of the practical.

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Why trace CLS's policy to arbitrary motivations like "Policy Entrenchment" or "Hijack Prevention" (neither of which, I believe, the constituents of CLS are too afraid of)? Why would their motivation not be simply one of faith--that their personal religious views disallow people of a certain sexual orientation or motivation from becoming part of their spiritual community? Here's my take on the problem, in a nutshell. I will not deny that the state of social acceptance of homosexuality is in a state of flux. From my vantage point, greater acceptance is a good and productive thing. I wonder, though, whether it makes sense in a diverse society to force moralistic views on the propriety of religious beliefs on private organizations who happen to view the world and right and wrong through a different prism than ourselves. I am all for equality and inclusion, I just think this may be a place where the importance of allowing religious groups to decide for themselves what beliefs they will adhere to and be bound by outweighs the need to force equality for the sake of making a social point, especially when, at least from a relativistic moral stance, the position of the CLS may be equally valid.
anon, I incline to your view that this is simply a straightforward expression of faith, rather than a narrowly-tailored attempt to exclude homosexuals (as made obvious by A. Rickey's being unqualified to be an officer even aside from Romans 1:27). It is because it does seem to be a sincere expression of principle that I view it less antagonistically than I would an exclusion of homosexuals from, say, the Federalist Society's leadership (to which, as far as I know, no homosexuals have aspired). However, what is being forced here is not a change in belief. The Christian Legal Society as an institution can continue to advance the view that homosexual behavior is wrong, and its individual members can continue to hold that belief. What the law school is questioning is a discriminatory practice, not a discriminatory belief. Excluding people from membership or leadership based on their being attracted to the same sex is a violation of Columbia's non-discrimination policy, and a group that declares it will be engaged in such a violation therefore risks losing the funding provided by the student body and recognition by the student government.
Anon: Why would their motivation not be simply one of faith--that their personal religious views disallow people of a certain sexual orientation or motivation from becoming part of their spiritual community? To be slightly flippant in my answer: because the Code of Conduct section is in Article 5.2 of their Constitution, while they already have a Statement of Faith in Article 3. (Since I can't link to their constitution, that's a bit unfair of me!) If the clause is just a "statement of faith," there's no need to tie it into the exclusion of officers. I suppose I could just consider it needless and flowery verbiage, but if that is the case, any society with such language in their constitution could simply remove it if it conflicts with a discrimination policy. Which of course nicely dovetails with PG's point: that what is at issue is a discriminatory practice. That seems a bit curious. Can one really say that this restriction upon leadership is a practice if no one has ever practiced it?
PG: ...Excluding people from membership or leadership based on their being attracted to the same sex is a violation of Columbia's non-discrimination policy, and a group that declares it will be engaged in such a violation therefore risks losing the funding provided by the student body and recognition by the student government. I think essentially the problem boils down to this--CLS's policies/practices being in conflict with Columbia's non-discrimination policy. I would take issue with your spin on the following, though. ...However, what is being forced here is not a change in belief. The Christian Legal Society as an institution can continue to advance the view that homosexual behavior is wrong, and its individual members can continue to hold that belief. What the law school is questioning is a discriminatory practice, not a discriminatory belief. Excluding people from membership or leadership based on their being attracted to the same sex is a violation of Columbia's non-discrimination policy, and a group that declares it will be engaged in such a violation therefore risks losing the funding provided by the student body and recognition by the student government. I agree that the right to "believe" and "practice those believes" can be technically disentagled and tenuously preserved in this way. But really, how much can we really claim to be honoring a group's right to certain beliefs if we will not allow them to put those beliefs into practice. In this case, for example, if CLS were to succumb to pressure, we would essentially have this awkward, only-a-lawyer-could-understand scenario: "Look, CLS. We will permit you to believe that gays should not be allowed into your group. That's your belief, and we won't disrupt it. But the moment you attempt to practice what you believe, you are out-of-bounds and in violation of Columbia's anti-discrimination policy." In short, what sort of real value does the right to a belief hold if a group can't put it into practice? Moreover, wouldn't the non-discrimination policy here force CLS to behave in ways incompatible with their beliefs. I understand and agree that CLS has no "right" to receiving funding or recognition from the student government if it diverges from the law school's non-discrimination policy, but I guess the guarantee of a "right to believe, and yet not practice" just rings a little hollow to me.
Anon: Moreover, wouldn't the non-discrimination policy here force CLS to behave in ways incompatible with their beliefs. Actually, that would be my question. Assuming that there is no homosexual, wiccan or otherwise "non-CLS-style" Christian who wants to run, is requiring the CLS to drop their policy actually forcing them to behaving in any way at all?

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