Being a young social conservative is not easy. Students who dare challenge the liberal orthodoxy on campuses often find themselves on the receiving end of wanton attacks and ridicule. As a result, many choose to keep their views private.
Dennis Crawford, a third-year student at Queen’s University, did not. A strong pro-lifer, Crawford recently rattled the Queen’s community by challenging the university student government’s mandatory student fee in support of a pro-choice organization.
While he was not successful in his challenge, Crawford raised an important question: should students be forced to fund organizations they oppose for moral or religious reasons?
Many clubs and organizations receive funds from the student government, the Alma Mater Society. Among them is the Sexual Health Resource Centre. The SHRC is known around campus as a place to buy condoms. But it does more than that: it provides referrals, houses a collection of literature and information on sexuality and even offers to escort students to a Kingston abortion facility.
Every year, students are charged a fee of 85 cents to support the abortion-supporting SHRC. While students can opt out of certain fees, the SHRC fee is mandatory. Crawford filed a complaint with the AMS Judicial Committee, a quasi-student court, arguing that the fee violates the AMS’s own constitution.
To be sure, 85 cents is not a lot of money. But what mattered here was the principle of the matter. Crawford is pro-life and it is unacceptable to him that his money funds something he finds morally unacceptable.
Arguments of this sort have been made unsuccessfully in the United States. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of University of Wisconsin Board of Regents vs. Southworth. Southworth and other students contended that it contravened the First Amendment that student fees were funding “political and ideological” organizations they opposed. The court ruled unanimously against them in 2000.
Crawford was hoping for a different result here. The AMS constitution states that students are entitled to “equal treatment with respect to students’ activities and organizations, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, martial status, family status, disability or the receipt of public assistance.” Crawford thought he might have a case arguing that he was being discriminated against on the basis of religion by being forced to pay the 85 cents.
After a short deliberation, the committee ruled against Crawford. Students had approved the SHRC fee in a referendum, after all, so the committee was able to argue that by allowing some students to opt out, the constitutional requirement of “equal treatment” would be violated.
Pretty predictable. As the Queen’s Journal, the university’s student newspaper, wrote in an editorial applauding the committee’s decision: “JComm’s ruling effectively said that AMS policy would not be dictated by the specific wishes of certain religious groups on campus, but would instead be determined by constitutional principles and the democratic will of students.” (Perfectly sensible logic, although it would be interesting to know whether this editorial writer would take the same position with respect to democratic referenda of the Canadian public, as the old Canadian Alliance and Reform parties advocated. Somehow, I doubt it.)
Crawford took the decision in stride. He says he wasn’t surprised. As he said in an interview: “It was not about the money. I wanted to make a statement, and make the AMS realize that on certain issues, there isn’t a uniform opinion on campus. They need to recognize that.”
If that was this student’s main goal, it was achieved. By simply standing up for his beliefs in a public way, he has advanced the cause. (The fact that thi article is being written is evidence in itself.) The lesson here is that awareness is a big part of the battle.
This story is not yet finished. Crawford has the right to appeal the Judicial Committee’s decision at the AMS’s Constitutional Affairs Tribunal, another student run body. At the time of writing, he still hadn’t made up his mind. There’s also the possibility of taking the AMS to a real court of law, which he hasn’t ruled out.
If nothing else, this man should be commended for his courage.
Adam Daifallah, a 2002 graduate of Queen’s University, is a Sauvé Scholar at McGill University.