That Old College Try

Religious Right Targets Higher Education

Religious Right leaders are not happy with the state of higher education in America.

Unlike elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities are free from many of the sectarian pressures that plague public education. Professors often have tenure, for example, and trustee boards are usually appointed, not elected.

That helps explain why certain “culture war” issues that frequently bog down public elementary, middle and high schools have failed at many colleges. Most public universities, for example, teach evolution upfront and without apology.

Some Religious Right groups want to change that. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a legal outfit founded in 1993 by a collection of right-wing radio and television preachers, has announced it will spend nearly $20 million on a new project aimed at America’s institutions of higher education.

At the same time, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear an ADF-sponsored case from California dealing with a student-run chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. The group wants official university recognition and a slice of the student activity fund, even though it discriminates on religious grounds in membership.

The battle at Hastings is well worth watching, as it represents yet another Religious Right attempt to chip away at the church-state wall. But more troubling is the larger agenda of the ADF and groups like it.

The Religious Right is in transition. Figures like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy are dead, and others – James Dobson is an example – are less visible these days.

Instead of being driven by high-profile TV and radio preachers with a tendency toward bombast, “Religious Right 2.0” could likely be spearheaded by groups like the ADF that are well funded and accustomed to working in the courts.

The ADF is headed by Alan Sears, who worked alongside former Attorney General Edwin Meese during the Reagan years. Sears has some predictably wrong-headed views. He has called the wall of separation between church and state “artificial” and lauded court rulings that lower it.

Sears is also so paranoid about a “homosexual agenda” running amok that he once opined that popular cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants might be in on the plot; he also asserts that movies like “Tootsie” and “Some Like It Hot” are dangerous because they promote cross-dressing.

Such views are daft, but the movement Sears runs is no joke. The ADF has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors. Rather than file lawsuits that are likely to lose, the ADF works methodically to erode the church-state wall incrementally, chip by chip.

The Hastings case is a good example of this strategy. The ADF is representing the CLS chapter and is making an argument based on fairness, asserting that the school’s refusal to fund the chapter is itself an example of discrimination.

If the group wins at the high court, you can bet the ADF will build on that precedent, perhaps insisting that “faith-based” groups that discriminate in hiring on religious grounds are also entitled to tax funds.

But the ADF has an agenda that goes far beyond the Hasting controversy. Sears and people like him have a view of the world that can perhaps be best described as, “We’re right and everyone else is wrong.”

Smugly confident of the superiority of their religious views, they plan to use the power of the government to bring the rest of us into line.

In the ADF-Sears worldview, gay people are sinners and a threat to society – they can be denied certain civil rights. Non-Christians are second-class citizens at best because America was founded for and by Christians (certain types of Christians, that is – the right-wing, fundamentalist ones).

How do they know these things? Well, their reading of the Bible tells them so.

If you’re a gay person, a feminist or a non-Christian (or even a liberal/ moderate Christian), your place in the ADF’s world is tenuous at best. Like theocrats throughout the ages, the ADF believes it knows what’s best for you – and it yearns to use the power of government to force you to live a “godly” life.

Will this audacious Religious Right assault on colleges work?

Institutions of higher education are known for stressing critical thinking and independent thought. Surely most of their leaders will resist it.

But the decision is not entirely in the hands of America’s universities. If the Supreme Court continues to erode the church-state wall and allow the ADF an opening, it will provide powerful legal tools to aid the organization’s misguided and dangerous crusade.

The ADF insists it merely wants to make colleges and universities friendlier to faith. But the schools already are that. Students are free to attend or not attend any house of worship they want. Student-run religious groups of all stripes are common on campuses.

Despite all the lofty talk about safeguarding religious liberty, the ADF and its allies have something quite different in mind: Their goal is to erode the church-state wall and fuse their narrow interpretation of Christianity with the government. They will assail any institution, including colleges and universities, that stand in their way.

They have the right to try – and we have an obligation to see that they don’t succeed.