Religious Freedom 101

Although it is tempting to assume that the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion and speech apply to everyone at all times, including college campuses, the answer is not that simple. Here are a few general themes for you to keep in mind:

  • The First Amendment protects students on public college campuses more than on private college campuses. That’s because the First Amendment is designed to keep government from infringing our basic rights of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. As such, a student enjoys First Amendment protections on public college campuses, which are owned and operated by the states. However, the First Amendment does not provide a similar check on the actions of administrators of a private college.
  • Other legal protections for religion and speech exist to clarify and supplement the Constitution and Bill of Rights. For example, Supreme Court decisions, as well as federal statutes (laws passed by Congress) often buttress the meaning and scope of our First Amendment guarantees. At the state level, state constitutions and state laws can also provide legal protections in various degrees for the free exercise of religion and speech on campuses located there. The level of protection can vary significantly from state to state.
  • Private religious colleges have the right to operate according to the tenets of a specific faith tradition, reflected in things like required religion courses and chapel attendance, sex-segregated dorms, and moral conduct codes.
  • Note: Public colleges and universities, even though constrained by the First Amendment, are not the bastions of religious freedom and free speech one would otherwise assume, because First Amendment protections are not absolute. For example, the freedom of speech is still subject to reasonable government-imposed restrictions related to time, place, and manner of the speech. And court decisions have allowed for increased restrictions on religion in the name of diversity and “non-discrimination.” College administrations hostile to religion have taken advantage of every one of these exceptions to ratchet down an otherwise robust realm of First Amendment protections.

That’s just an overview of the constitutional and legal protections ― and exceptions ― that form the framework from which colleges operate to provide either a welcoming environment for religious freedom and speech, or a restrictive and hostile one.

BOTTOM LINE:

First Amendment rights of students are protected on campus up to a point, but parents and student need to be aware of the limits of that protection.

In the next article, we’ll address another problem affecting college campus religious freedom: federal and state laws at odds with Christianity and the free exercise of religion.