By Ian Millhiser
Bob Jones University was a racist institution. Until 1971, the school did not accept black students at all, and for much of the 1970s, the school only permitted African Americans who were married to another African American to attend. After a court decision required many Southern schools to integrate, Bob Jones changed its policy again to allow unmarried black students, while also imposing strict restrictions on interracial romance. “Students who date outside of their own race will be expelled,” read one of Bob Jones’s rules. Another provided that “Students who are members of or affiliated with any group or organization which holds as one of its goals or advocates interracial marriage will be expelled.”
At the beginning of the 1970s, a panel of federal judges and, ultimately, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) concluded that the federal government could “no longer legally justify allowing tax-exempt status to private schools which practice racial discrimination.” What followed was a foundational conflict that helped build the modern day Christian right. According to a top aide to Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, “government interference in Christian schools” quickly became one of religious conservatives’ core causes. Though not all of the culture warriors who signed up in defense of religious education were racist — many were motivated by opposition to evolution, sex education or “hedonistic youth culture” — the bigoted Bob Jones University soon became the battleground where the Christian Right made its stand.
They lost. As the Supreme Court explained in its 1983 decision in Bob Jones University v. United States, “the Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education,” and this interest overcame Bob Jones’s asserted religious interest in being racist. Eight members of the Court joined this decision, only Justice William Rehnquist, then the Court’s most conservative member, dissented.
Flash forward more than three decades, and the Christian right is gearing up to fight this battle all over again, albeit on a slightly different battlefield. This time, the forces of religious discontent are not mustering in support of racism, they’re mustering in favor of anti-gay discrimination.