Sharing your faith at Northwestern University just got a bit harder. ADF was recently notified that last spring, Northwestern (NU) quietly released a list of “ethical guidelines” for religious student groups on campus. The document, sent to campus ministry leaders, “articulate[s] the University’s expectations for student religious groups with regard to sharing their faith on campus and participation and leadership in student religious groups.” As a former campus ministry leader, I wonder what caused NU to shut down religious liberties on campus.
The guidelines require religious student groups to “maintain integrity in publicity” by clearly stating what group is sponsoring an event on campus. This is not unusual. But there may be more to the story.
When I attended NU 10 years ago, there was a questionable off-campus group that tried to start a “Bible study” in one of the dorms. However, the group was not interested in the Bible. Instead, it tried to persuade students to drop out of school and devote themselves to the group. Perhaps NU’s integrity in publicity rule is a result of that experience. Yet it seems that NU is concerned about more than just that, as their policy goes far beyond “integrity in publicity.”
NU also regulates when you can share your faith on campus and to whom you can share it. Under the guise of “respecting privacy” in the dorms, NU now prohibits students from visiting other students to share their faith unless they’ve been invited to do so or they know that the person is interested in their faith. Students may not distribute flyers, set up an information table, or even “visit” students who have left their dorm room doors open. No more door-to-door ministry on campus. You can’t even slip a flyer for an upcoming event under a student’s door without knowing they’d be interested in it first. (Which begs the question—how do you know whether someone is interested in learning about your faith if you can’t share it with them to begin with??)
NU also instructs students to foster a climate of respect on campus, but informs students that “religious groups should not employ coercion, manipulation, harassment, or exploitation of any kind.” Well, how do you define any of that? NU doesn’t, and I suspect that this prohibition will land unsuspecting groups in hot water for simply sharing their faith on campus. While NU is a private institution and not bound by the Constitution, as a major research university, it should behave much like it state-funded peers, especially when it promises all the same freedoms: “the University encourages its students to discuss faith, values, ethics, spirituality, philosophy, and religion, and to share their beliefs with others.” Here’s a free tip to my alma mater: vague policies that threaten to punish speech do not encourage free discussion and the sharing of beliefs.
Finally, NU dictates how religious student groups may select members and leaders. For one, it requires the groups to be open to participation by any student. But NU also says that groups may specify requirements for leadership positions and participating in religious rituals. However, those requirements may not violate NU’s nondiscrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination based on “religion.” In other words, NU religious groups are apparently not allowed to require that leaders adhere to the group’s moral or religious beliefs. While NU is a private university, its policy flies in the face of controlling legal precedent that says requiring student groups to abide by a public university’s nondiscrimination policy in this manner violates the group’s First Amendment rights. Not to mention that it flies in the face of common sense, as we could see Muslims as leaders of Christian groups, Jews as leaders of Muslim groups, and Christians as leaders of Jewish groups. The result? Student groups at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (another Big Ten school) are freer to speak and associate than religious student groups at NU. That’s a shame.