UF will accept groups' faith-based exclusivity


Published: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 at 11:42 p.m.

After being sued by a Christian fraternity, the University of Florida has changed its policy to allow student groups to limit membership based on religious beliefs.

UF denied the fraternity, Beta Upsilon Chi, recognition on the grounds that its membership policies were discriminatory. An appeals court ruled last year that UF must recognize the fraternity as the case was being decided.

On Jan. 15, UF sent a letter to the fraternity and two other groups announcing a new policy to recognize groups "whose primary purpose is religoius" that require members to share the same faith. UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said the policy was based on the approach of other major universities.

"We believe this is an approach that will make the most opportunities available to all of our students," she said.

UF is now asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed, she said.

The university also sent the letter announcing the policy to another Christian fraternity, Kappa Upsilon Chi, and the group Gator Christian Life. The latter group was being represented by a Christian legal group, the Liberty Counsel, but had not filed suit.

Mathew Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and dean of the Liberty University School of Law, said he believed UF was on shaky legal grounds in denying recognition to the groups. He compared the old policy to requiring a black student group to admit a white supremacist.

"Groups must be given leeway under the First Amendment to be able to have freedom of association," he said.

UF is following the lead of other universities that have changed policies following challenges from religious groups. The University of Georgia had previously recognized Beta Upsilon Chi based on a similar challenge.

Sikes said UF's new policy would still prevent student groups from restricting membership based on the religion of a student's parents. But the policy would allow groups to limit membership or leadership positions to students who share the religious beliefs of the organization.

"The university has determined that this accommodation of religious belief does not violate its nondiscrimination policy," the policy states.

More than 60 religious student organizations, of which about 48 are Christian, are registered as student organizations at UF. The university previously required the groups to have policies allowing members of any religion.

Officially registering with the university gives privileges to groups such as using university facilities and receiving funding from student government.

Beta Upsilon Chi, known as BYX or Bucks, is the largest Christian fraternity in the U.S. The group was disappointed that it took so long to be recognized at UF, said Damion Dam, former president and current chaplain of the chapter.

The group is just starting its first rush, he said, and hopes to recruit members looking for a religious alternative to the professional and social groups on campus.

"We're trying to build men up that want to follow Jesus," he said.

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