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OSU Might Change Policy That Allows Students' Religious Clubs To Exclude Certain People

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling this past summer may have implications for some student organizations at Ohio State University. As WOSU's Sam Hendren reports, officials are trying to decide if religious clubs should continue to be able to exclude certain students.

There are more than a thousand university-sanctioned student organizations at Ohio State. They include fraternities and sororities and clubs with specific interests. They're a diverse group: for example there's the Archery Club; the Society of Clarinets; the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Issues in Medicine organization; the Minority Psychology Student Association; and the Society for Civil Debate.

About 100 of the groups at OSU are founded on spiritual or religious principles. They include groups for Christians, Jews, Muslims, even atheists. Many of the religious groups are represented by the University Interfaith Association. The UIA's president is Presbyterian minister Jonathan Weyer. Weyer says that campus religious organizations deserve special consideration because they have Constitutional protection.

"Religious liberties are something that our founding fathers and mothers came to this country to be able to express their religious bent," Weyer says. "And this is why we have religious diversity because we can express what we think even if it disagrees with what everyone else thinks."

Each university student organization has its own constitution; and each constitution is required to have a non-discrimination clause. But for the past several years, religious groups on campus have been allowed to exclude students who the group believes don't share their religious views. The process of suspending part of the non-discrimination clause is known as a "carve out." Matt Couch is an associate director of Ohio State's student union.

"The carve out is for those groups that were formed to foster or affirm a sincerely held religious belief," Couch says. "Those organizations may adopt a statement of non-discrimination that's consistent with their beliefs. So that has been in place since about 2004. And it has been a relatively low number of groups that have utilized it."

Estimates are that only about 20 religious groups are using carve outs. One of those is the Christian Legal Society whose president is Caitlyn Nestleroth.

"We offer an organization where Christian law students can come together in fellowship, in worship of Jesus Christ and learn more about how law and religion intersect," Nestleroth says.

Nestleroth says membership in the Christian Legal Society is open to anyone. But she says the group is opposed to having a non-believer in a leadership role.

"We don't want to exclude non-believers from our meetings," Nestleroth says. "As Christians we want to reach out to non-believers or those who may be exploring believing because that's part of our duty as Christians. But we don't think that we should be forced to accept a non-believer as one of the leaders in our organization."

But since last summer, the university has been reexamining the carve-out policy. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a college in California. Hastings College refused to allow a Christian student group to prevent gay students from becoming members.

Ohio State's largest student government association recently took the position that student groups - which receive a portion of student activity fees - should not discriminate. Micah Kamrass is the Undergraduate Student Government president.

"The undergraduate student government senate took the official position that we would like to get rid of the exemption that religious student organizations currently have where they are allowed to discriminate," Kamrass says. "We feel strongly that there should be no discrimination of any kind in student organizations here at Ohio State."

If carve outs were eliminated, groups like the Christian Legal Society believe that their leadership might be compromised.

"We personally as a group don't believe that we should be forced to accept people as our leaders that don't believe in our mission," Nestleroth says.

Caitlyn Nestleroth sees that as a distinct possibility. Micah Kamrass does not.

"I think that any group that has fair elections is able to make sure that their leaders represent their values. That's why we have elections," Kamrass says. "I don't think that someone would win an election to be a leader of an organization if they didn't share the values of the group."

In spite of the Hastings College case, the student union's Matt Couch says he thinks it's unlikely that someone with a differing point of view would attempt membership in an organization whose principals he or she did not believe in.

"The practical issue of how likely a student would be to join an organization or seek leadership in an organization that espouses beliefs that they don't share is low," Couch says. "Would they be accepted in a group like that?"

Asked if he knew of a student who had been denied membership in a club, Couch says that he did not. "If students are being turned away from any of these organizations because of a statement of faith that they might have to agree to in order to become a member, those students haven't notified us about it so as far as we're concerned, the discrimination that some people might fear would happen with the existence of that exemption hasn't occurred to our knowledge," Couch says.

Still, the University Interfaith Association's Jonathan Weyer wants the religious carve-out policy to stay as it is.

"We feel like it's not broke so why fix it? There's a different, wide variety of religious traditions represented by the UIA who are all concerned that the religious voice at Ohio State can be protected so that students can speak their religious voice whatever it might be in a good environment, in a safe environment," Weyer says.

Ohio State officials don't know when the matter will be resolved. The decision rests with Javaune Adams-Gaston, Vice President for Student Life at Ohio State.