While the institution of sorority can frequently come under scrutiny, there is a Constitutional right that we hold dear to the core of our very being. The most debated and often legally challenged issue is the right to freedom of association.
Courts continually tackle the concept and attempt to interpret the right as it pertains to the nation’s education institutions – construing the differences between private and public college applications, religious beliefs, and the right as it applies to sororities and fraternities.
A unanimous decision in January by the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the “right to freedom of association is a right enjoyed by religious and secular groups alike.”
NPC’s governing documents, known as our Unanimous Agreements, hold the same.
NPC member groups exist as women-only private social organizations and the legal reasoning was adopted in Unanimous Agreement X in November 2011. Congress recognized in Title IX of the Education Act Amendments of 1972 that fraternities and sororities were exempt from the prohibition against gender discrimination and could therefore maintain their single sex membership policies.
This is not a right that we take lightly.
Most recently in the news we’ve followed the actions of Vanderbilt University, a private school that has been going very public in discussing an all-comers policy.
According to Timothy M. Burke, general counsel for the NPC, VU is requiring that for a student group to be recognized and receive university benefits that come with “recognition” privileges, the student group must admit anyone who wants to join and anyone should be eligible to run for a leadership position – even if they don’t adhere, accept or follow the same beliefs.
Though Vanderbilt has exempted our organizations from the all-comers policy as a private school, it is pushing forward with the discussion as are other private schools under the blanket of intellectual freedoms.
Other legal observers and religious leaders are already finding flaws with the logic.
Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt, told The Tennessean newspaper that “such a policy promotes discrimination in the name of nondiscrimination.”
Sororities are watching the news and ready to monitor what’s at stake for us on the nation’s campuses. As Burke pointed out in his paper delivered to Stetson Law School’s National Conference on Law and Higher Education: “The right to associate with others of like beliefs should be recognized and supported across the political and social spectrum of college campuses.”
That’s true of the most controversial and ardent of advocacy groups that vie for recognition on a college campus where many of us first found our public voices as young women.
You will find many of our fraternal groups engaged and present in their policy discussions and resolutions as well – from the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors to the North-American Interfraternity Conference.
NPC’s stance, adopted and agreed upon by all 26 of our member sororities, is clearly spelled out in Unanimous Agreement X. The issue is important for us to monitor and to speak up about as campuses review and adopt policies that may be out of sync with current legal opinions and case law.
Jane H. Sutton
National Panhellenic Conference Inc.
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