In my experience over many years teaching political science at the Air Force Academy, one of the most important, and yet often the most challenging, concepts to teach was the notion of fundamental rights in conflict with other such rights. We Americans know by rote those remarkable words of Thomas Jefferson – all men are created equal. In today’s world, we know that Mr. Jefferson’s credo applies to every American. This was a truly radical idea in Jefferson’s day, in that most folks thought that God picked kings, and the kings agreed. Thus, to differ with the king was to defy God. Happily, we have evolved past that as a society, and we (mostly) think that everyone should have the same rights.
Supporting rights is easy when there is no other right at risk. It’s easy to say you support free speech when it’s speech with which you agree. But I always told my students the real test of their belief in the equality of everyone comes when someone says something so vile, so distasteful, that it makes your skin crawl. Only when you accept the right of your enemies to speak freely in a manner you find offensive is free speech truly protected.
For many years, when teaching the lesson of freedom of (and from) religion, I began that class by saying to the cadets that since today’s lesson is so potentially divisive, I was going to start the class with a short prayer for calm and understanding. Usually, a couple of the more liberal kids would object, while the majority were happy with that idea. But, when I began the “prayer” with praise of Zeus (or Satan, or whatever I felt would offend the most kids), the bowed heads shot back up, and they objected. So, I asked if they were OK with a prayer in school only if that prayer was one they agreed with. Thus, I hope, I made the point that if you are OK with a government entity (like little old me at the front of the class) picking a religious view and promoting that one view, you have set yourself up for big problems.
I thought of those lessons today in reading a story in the Gazette about a group of students who filed suit against the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, over what they feel is discrimination against them over their religious views. It’s worth taking a moment to read that story, so go ahead, I’ll wait here…
Back? Ok, so you see that the basic issue appears to be that a group of Christian students (the group is called Ratio Christi) with a particular view of theology feels discriminated against, in that the school has not included their group among those able to tap in to the student activity fees paid by all students. These fees, it appears, as they do on many campuses, support a wide variety of groups across a wide range of subjects and issues. The story reports that the plaintiffs feel they are being forced to support groups they find offensive (such as LGBTQ, College Democrats, Vegan folks, and more) while not being supported themselves.
I don’t pretend to know enough about the details of this story to be able to dictate, with Solomonic wisdom, what the school should do. Certainly there needs to be a standard which student clubs and organizations must reach before getting funding. One student, for example, should not be able to get student funds for a 1-person solitaire club. And I’d guess that a “young Nazi” group would not qualify for funding. That said, how shall UCCS decide?
During my 25-plus year career in the Air Force, I experienced religious discrimination, though not too dramatically, many times, as I was not and am not a Christian. Therefore, I’m very sensitive to the issue of religious discrimination, especially in schools. The Gazette story does not really tell us the why part of UCCS’s decision, but since my long-suffering editor pays me to speculate wildly (Ed: no, that’s not quite right), I’ll suggest that absent some truly disqualifying feature of Ratio Christi, they should be able to get student funds, if (and it’s a big “if”), any religious student group gets funds.
I don’t for a moment claim that this is an easy or simple choice, and yes, there needs to be standards. But if UCCS is truly picking and choosing which faith notions are OK, we are sliding down a slippery slope.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.