Editors’ note: 

The information contained in this document is general in nature and is not intended to provide, or be a substitute for, legal analysis, legal advice, or consultation with appropriate legal counsel. You should not act or rely on information contained in this document without seeking appropriate professional advice. Contact Alliance Defending Freedom with any questions by visiting ADFLegal.org or by calling 1-800-835-5233.

Previously: Know Your Rights as a Christian in a Public School (K–12)

As the school year gets underway, many parents, students, teachers, and coaches have questions about what they legally can and cannot do as it relates to their Christian faith. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit organization that defends the religious liberty of Christians, has compiled a helpful collection of guidance on our constitutionally protected rights. Below is information related to public colleges and universities taken directly from various resources produced by ADF.

Freedom of Speech

The U.S. Constitution protects your right to express personal religious and political beliefs in writing, speech, and visual or performing arts while at a public university. In class, a professor may ask you to take positions you disagree with so long as he doesn’t require you to agree with those positions outside the classroom.

Many public universities use unconstitutional speech codes to censor students on campus. By using terms like “offensive,” “demeaning,” and “uncomfortable,” these speech codes give administrators broad discretion to silence students, which is unconstitutional.

Freedom of Association

Christian student groups have the same right to associate on public university campuses as any other group.

In most circumstances, universities cannot expel religious groups from campus merely because the groups want their members or leaders to agree with the group’s religious beliefs. Overly broad “nondiscrimination” policies may violate student groups’ rights of association. But the Supreme Court has said a college may restrict students’ free association if it has an “all comers” policy, meaning that all students must be allowed to join and lead all groups.

One of the most critical things for a new group is to write a constitution and bylaws. These documents define, among other things, who can participate in the group, who can be a member, and who can be a leader. The purpose of placing limits on who is eligible to lead or vote is to preserve the character of the group. For example, some Christian groups ask their officers to lead Bible studies. Those groups require their officers to agree with a statement of faith or to demonstrate a commitment to the faith. Doing so helps ensure the officers will be good representatives of Christ and will be able to teach others in accordance with the beliefs of the group.

Free Exercise of Religious Beliefs

Public universities cannot compel you to publicly advocate views and adopt values that are contrary to your beliefs.

While professors can legitimately ask students to advocate a variety of ideas in class, including on assigned papers and other class projects, they cannot ask students to advocate particular ideas to the general public or to individuals outside the classroom context. In short, professors cannot enlist a student as their own private lobbyist or community activist.

The school also cannot force you to take a particular public position on an issue. For example, university administrators and faculty directed a student to participate in lobbying the Missouri State Legislature in support of homosexual adoption as part of her course requirements for a degree in social work. When she refused because of her beliefs, the university threatened to withhold her degree. ADF filed a lawsuit on her behalf, which was quickly settled by the institution. No government entity has the right to tell students what to think, say, or feel.

Similarly, public universities that force students to attend mandatory diversity training or “sensitivity training” sessions are likely violating the Constitution. The First Amendment bars a public university from forcing students to change their religious beliefs or from insisting that all students adopt a specific campus orthodoxy, such as “multiculturalism” or “diversity.”

The freedom to act on one’s religious beliefs, however, is not unlimited. The Free Exercise Clause, one of the two Religion Clauses, permits public universities—and other government bodies—to enact rules and regulations that incidentally interfere with religious practice, as long as such measures are both “neutral” towards religion and “generally applicable” to members of the university community. So, the university cannot directly restrict religion or target it by enacting measures that specifically mention religious practices, that are motivated by antireligious bias, or that affect religious practice alone.

But even “neutral” and “generally applicable” university rules will almost always be unconstitutional if they affect religious liberty and other First Amendment rights, such as the freedoms of speech and association.

Equal Access

All recognized student groups have the same right to access resources a university has made available. This includes funding, meeting rooms, mail systems, or other campus resources.

Many administrators mistakenly believe that permitting expressions of faith means that the college or university is violating the so-called “separation of church and state.” But the Supreme Court has held for many years that the Constitution requires neutrality toward religion; it does not require hostility. Your group cannot be singled out for disparate treatment because it is religious or conservative.

Equal Opportunity

As a student, you have the right to be free from censorship, reprisal, or punishment for your beliefs. Students with religious or conservative beliefs should have the same chance at academic success, employment, and promotion.

The extent of protection provided to persons depends in large part on whether that person is a private citizen or a public employee. Private citizens—students on public university campuses—have the greatest breadth of protection because the government has virtually no legitimate interest in repressing their expression. In the university setting, students may study, inquire, research, form organizations, and publicly express opinions on virtually any topic of human interest without fear of retaliation from the academic institution. From a legal perspective, a student at a public university enjoys the full breadth of liberty provided by the Constitution.

Rights of Professors

There are nuances in the law, but generally speaking a public university may not punish a professor for the views he expresses in a publication, nor may it punish his views in the classroom on topics germane to the curriculum.