All-Comers Policy Debate Continues

In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling last June in Christian Legal Society (CLS) v. Martinez, student groups on campus, namely those affiliated with the Office for Religious Life, have recently become conscious that Stanford University believes itself to be operating under an all-comers policy.

The policy in question states: Membership in student organizations must be broadly open to all currently registered Stanford students. The CLS case established the constitutionality of all-comers policies at public colleges and universities, granting schools the right to withhold funding and deny formal recognition to student groups that reject students who do not share that group’s ideological perspective either in opinion or by practice.

According to Rev. Scotty McLennan, Dean for Religious Life, this policy has been around forever and is not merely the offspring of the Court’s recent ruling. “To my knowledge, and certainly in the 10 years that I have been here, it’s always been our policy.”

However, it remains to be seen whether student groups universally recognized an implicit all-comers policy on campus prior to the case. Rev. Glen Davis, professional leader of Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, said that while technically there has been no actual change in policy, the danger to Stanford’s religious community lies in the reinterpretation of the policy, which the university believes aligns itself with the standards set forth by the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“Stanford, as a private university, is free to abide by or disregard the Supreme Court’s ruling,” explained Davis, “yet they have chosen to get on board with it for ideological reasons, discovering that low and behold, ‘we have the exact same policies as UC Hastings.’”

He believes that this was not the case, prior to the court’s decision and was more recently emphasized this past September at the Stanford Associated Religions meeting, which every quarter brings together representatives from all 35 of Stanford’s religious groups. “It was presented to us as ‘This is what we’re doing,’ which implies to some extent that this is a novel interpretation of the policy.”

Regardless of whether an all-comers policy was already implicit in Stanford’s rulebook, McLennan suggested that is it important that Stanford at least not appear to be in blatant defiance of federal law. “In general we in private institutions should keep our eye on the U.S. Constitution. It seems unseemly to me if we would say ‘Well we’ll actually do things that might violate the Constitution if we were a public institution because we’re a private institution.’”

According to Davis, that misses the point altogether. “The Supreme Court didn’t say colleges should enact all-comers policies. It said that colleges are allowed to enact all-comers policies or are free to hold very different policies.” He further explained that it is possible that the Supreme Court justices themselves are distanced from life on college campuses, unable to fully comprehend the roles and responsibilities religious organizations play in the Stanford community. Instead, he believes that the University should craft a different policy—one which recognizes that religious freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of association are inextricably linked.

Although McLennan believes Stanford is well within its rights and responsibilities to implement policies similar to those deemed constitutional by the CLS case, Davis feels that an effective all-comers policy unfairly targets religious groups. “From my perspective, this is what it’s really all about—homosexuality,” said Davis. “That was the triggering issue at UC Hastings and that is the flash point at colleges across America.”

The court’s ruling, and consequently Stanford’s interpretation of its own policy, implies that in a situation where a religious group denies membership or the promotion of a leadership position to a homosexual, that group can then legally be barred from using campus facilities as well as denied university recognition as an official student group.

Another relevant concern is whether the university, in the occurrence of a conflict, can force a religious group to elect leaders who do not share their group’s mission statement or who are not faithful to that group’s shared moral code. “In America, elected officials take an oath of office pledging to uphold certain values. Likewise, we want to be free to require our leaders to pledge to uphold the values of our organization,” said Davis. “I don’t think that’s irrational or weird.”

Still McLennan believes that it is unlikely that a group will be subjected to the leadership of someone contradictory to that group’s founding values. “You’re not going to worry about the organization electing somebody who doesn’t stand for what the organization is all about.”

Furthermore, even in absence of an interpreted all-comers policy, he disagrees with the assumption that groups would be actively turning students away. “I have never had any indication that anyone was trying to limit their membership,” explained McLennan. “It always seemed that they, almost by definition of being a religious group, wanted as many people as they could get to join; so I believe that our policy as a university has always been consonant with what religious groups are doing.”

In reality, Stanford has seen very little consequence to the court’s ruling thus far, implying that most of the religious community’s concerns are prospective. McLennan believes that the implication of an all-comers policy will only be recognized in the years to come, hypothesizing, “I think the way it would come up is if a complainant came to us and said ‘I’ve tried to become a leader at—say—InterVarsity, I happen to be gay, and they said to me ‘Sorry we cannot make you a leader because you’re gay.’’” Only then does he believe the University might interfere with the functioning of religious groups.

Davis too sees potential conflict in the future, yet he fears the outcome will likely be unfavorable for groups like his. “The university has made clear their stance in advance,” said Davis. “It’s very vexing to me because practically we’re not going to do anything about it.”

As far as strategy goes, he reiterated, “We’ll go along until an issue comes up, but at the end of the day this is an issue of existence or nonexistence for us—we simply cannot exist if we are forced to accept leaders who deny our beliefs.”

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