Appeals court: UF must recognize Christian-only frat
Published: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 1:14 a.m.
The University of Florida has more than 60 officially recognized student groups that include religion as part of their missions, including groups for Christian pharmacy students and Jewish law students.
Yet the university denied a Christian fraternity, Beta Upsilon Chi, recognition on the grounds its membership policies were discriminatory.
Beta Upsilon Chi sued UF, leading an appeals court this week to require the university to recognize the fraternity as the case was being decided.
"All we're trying to do is get a group of guys who share a common bond in Jesus Christ together," said Damion Dam, a 20-year-old UF finance/pre-med major and fraternity president. "I really don't see why we weren't recognized in the first place."
University officials say there's a major distinction between Beta Upsilon Chi, or BYX, and other religious groups on campus. BYX requires members to be Christians, while other student groups are open to non-believers.
"The University of Florida welcomes all kinds of student groups including those with a religious focus," said Janine Sikes, UF spokeswoman. "(But) if someone who is a non-Christian wants to join, they should be able to."
BYX, pronounced Bucks, is the largest Christian fraternity in the U.S. Since being formed at the University of Texas in 1985, it has expanded to 20 other campuses.
The University of Georgia chapter was allowed as student groups under threat of legal action, but UF was the first to force the issue to court.
The U.S. Constitution requires universities to recognize religious groups, said Isaac Fong, an attorney for the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law & Religious Freedom who represented BYX.
"What we're arguing here is the First Amendment protects the right of students to form a group around a set of shared principles," he said.
Religious groups at UF walk a tightrope between specialization and discrimination. The Christian Veterinary Fellowship, which conducts mission work in other countries, is an example of an officially recognized group with a religious focus.
"That doesn't mean that we ask everyone who comes to our meetings whether they're Christian or not," said Michelle Bellville, a fourth-year vet student and group president. "We're open to everyone."
But she said members are likely to be Christians or searching for religion.
She cited the case of an undergraduate who came to a meeting to hear a speech and soon converted to Christianity.
As a recognized student organization, the group can use UF facilities and receive funding from student government. BYX's lawsuit claims that the university, by withholding those privileges from the frat, violated Constitutional rights to free exercise of religion, freedom of association and freedom of speech.
According to the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Gainesville, UF initially denied recognition of the group on the basis that they limit membership to men. Dam said the fraternity found a sister group to address that issue, but was told its policy to admit only Christians posed another roadblock.
UF requires student groups to comply with nondiscrimination laws and not discriminate of the basis of race, religion, sex and other personal characteristics.
The district court ruled against an injunction that would require UF to recognize the fraternity while the case was being decided. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, allowing recognition until a final ruling is made.
Brett Williams, national board member of BYX, said the order has wider implications.
"It has repercussions for all other religious groups who desire to assemble on university campuses," he said.
Sikes said UF will now allow BYX to start the process of being recognized as a student group, but it was uncertain whether the order had wider implications.
Dam said the fraternity's dozen members will start chapter business such as arranging for campus meeting space, even though the case is still pending.
"If anything does change, we still had this time when we were on campus," he said.
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