As co-eds all across the country pack up their belongings, bid farewell to their parents, and head off to college this week, many will be moving into "themed housing."
Themed housing is where students with common interests or values gather under one roof. At both public and private colleges, available "themes" for living quarters are virtually boundless. Some focus on culture, others on music or the arts. Dormitories are set aside for interests in cooking, outdoors, gaming, exercise, and fantasy literature. A few colleges offer housing for those with select views about the environment. UC Santa Cruz offers a large variety of themes, including a diversity awareness house, a social justice house, a Rosa Parks African American house, as well as a house for those who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, queer, questioning, or allies.
Troy University in Alabama likewise extends a number of themed dormitories. It has a couple of houses dedicated to substance-free living, a house reserved for honor students, and another one targeting international interests.
But Troy drew the ire of an influential Atheist group, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), for their most recent themed house that is set to open this fall. The college is using private funding to provide housing that prioritizes students who share an interest in religious matters, maintain an active spiritual lifestyle, and are actively engaged in a campus faith-based organization, regardless of what religion they practice.
Despite the private sourcing for the cost of the building, which will be split between dorm housing and a Catholic student center, FFRF sent a threatening letter to Troy University alleging discrimination against non-religious students.
FFRF confuses -- and thus misrepresents -- the constitutional principles at stake. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee an Atheist a freedom from religion, a right to live in a completely secular culture free of any reminder of the religious values that most of us hold dear; rather, we all enjoy a freedom of religion, a right to live out our faith -- whatever faith that may be -- in a pluralistic society.
This fundamental right does not allow for religion to be singled out as the one forbidden theme in a vast array of housing choices on a college campus.
In the face of legal action, so far Troy is standing firm. Researching the need for themed housing on campus, Troy officials discovered that nearly three-quarters of the student body identified religion as an important value to them, far more than any other overlap for potential themes.
Given the prevalence of religious faith among the students, this theme could not be ignored. "Our mission is certainly to help students earn a degree," John Schmidt, senior vice chancellor for advancement and external relations, said last week. "But we also believe that it is equally important to assist students in building a value-based life."
Troy University should be applauded for supporting students who wish to live out their faith by choosing where they wish to live.
As Troy stands up to the bullies at FFRF, this institution of higher learning is effectively teaching its students a valuable lesson, not only in constitutional jurisprudence, but English grammar, particularly, the importance of prepositions. We do not possess a freedom FROM religion, but a freedom OF religion.
Nate Kellum is the Chief Counsel at the Center for Religious Expression, a non-profit organization based in Memphis.