COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The University of Missouri-Columbia has dropped its opposition to a Christian fraternity that restricts membership to students who "share the common bond" of Jesus Christ.
The university's decision regarding Beta Upsilon Chi -- its Greek letters stand for Brothers Under Christ -- follows a similar decision by the University of Georgia earlier this month to exempt the fraternity from campus nondiscrimination policies.
The fraternity, which began two decades ago at the University of Texas in Austin, had filed a civil rights lawsuit against the University of Georgia in an Athens, Ga., federal court.
"The threatened exclusion of a faith-based fraternity at the University of Missouri makes no sense," said Timothy Tracey, a lawyer with the Christian Legal Society, one of two legal advocacy groups to represent the Missouri and Georgia students in their disputes. "Religious student groups like Beta Upsilon Chi contribute to the health and diversity of campus life and should be encouraged, not discouraged."
The 10-member Missouri chapter was formed in April and previously approved by campus leaders, Tracey said. But on Dec. 7, an administrator advised the chapter's president by e-mail that the fraternity must comply with campus rules forbidding discrimination based on "race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability" and status as a Vietnam War veteran.
The university reversed course after Tracey responded with a letter noting several legal precedents protecting religious student groups' First Amendment rights of free association.
In response, a university attorney acknowledged that the campus nondiscrimination policy "shall not be interpreted in such a way as to violate the legal rights of religious organizations."
Nick Evans, the university's coordinator of student organizations, said his department wasn't initially aware of that exemption. "At the time, we were unaware of that clause," he said. "That's why we pressed the issue."
Christian fraternities and sororities have blossomed on U.S. campuses since Beta Upsilon Chi's formation in 1985.
Among the groups: Sigma Phi Lambda sorority, or Sisters for the Lord; and Kappa Upsilon Chi fraternity, or Keeping Under Christ. Eleven of the 18 Beta Upsilon Chi chapters are at Texas schools.
While modern Greek groups on campus are largely defined by their parties and charity fundraisers, many were established with a strong foundation of Christian fellowship, said Tracey.
"A lot of fraternities had a religious basis," he said. "The Greek system was originally established to promote Christian virtues such as charity and service."