Group aims to defend student religious freedom on campus

Friday, December 25, 2009

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Alliance Defense Fund is stepping up a campaign on college campuses aimed at ensuring freedom of religious expression.

The 15-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Christian nonprofit is using a $9.2 million donation and its own matching funds for its University Project, which will send attorneys to defend students or student groups that feel they've been prevented from expressing socially conservative or religious views.

ADF is pursuing 55 legal cases that include those involving students who said their anti-abortion views were censored to an independent student newspaper whose distribution bins were removed from a campus.

Some advocacy groups say the alliance's effort is misguided because religious students have opportunities to promote their beliefs. Universities say their policies protect free speech and ensure a respectful environment.

A law professor at Arizona State University, for example, worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to write guidelines to encourage free speech rather than restrict it, said Nancy Tribbensee, staff attorney for the Arizona Board of Regents.

ADF argues that university codes of conduct are overly broad and limit what students can say. The group contends that in many cases, the codes protect left-wing viewpoints while eroding Christian conservatives' free-speech rights.

“We want to restore the marketplace of ideas on campus and ensure that religious students are not treated as second-class citizens,” said attorney David French, who leads the University Project.

ADF doesn't plan to go through university codes looking for possible problems. The group said it would intervene only if students ran into free-speech issues and brought their complaints to its attention.

The reason for codes of conduct is to encourage rational debate, respect for one another and tolerance of a variety of viewpoints, said Robert O'Neil, a University of Virginia law professor who directs the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that although some universities violate students' free-speech rights, that's not the norm.

“I think they're going to be hard-pressed to find very many serious cases where colleges, by policy or practice, inhibit Christian students or in any way treat them as second-class citizens,” he said.

But ADF President Alan Sears says public universities remain the most intolerant places in America.

“We intend to bring as many actions as necessary until folks decide to conform to the Constitution,” he said.

He says his group has had success. In 50 concluded legal cases involving universities, colleges have changed some policies or a court has ordered changes, he said.

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