The fight for campus access for faith-based student groups scored another legal victory this week.
A district court judge ruled on Monday that Wayne State University violated the First Amendment with a 2017 decision that temporarily denied InterVarsity Christian Fellowship its status as a student group over the chapter’s requirement that its leaders be Christian.
Wayne State’s nondiscrimination policy, according the 83-page opinion by Robert Cleland, “violated plaintiffs’ rights to internal management, free speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and free exercise as a matter of law.”
The judge ruled that the First Amendment protects religious organizations’ rights to select their own ministers, and that the InterVarsity chapter’s student leaders qualified as ministers. While InterVarsity is open to all students, it asks leaders to sign a statement of faith.
Cleland also agreed with InterVarsity’s argument that the school selectively applied its nondiscrimination policy, since other organizations also had specific requirements for their leaders.
The decision comes three years after Wayne State allowed InterVarsity to regain its recognition as a campus group and only resulted in a $1 in symbolic damages. In a statement to Detroit News, the university challenged the decision to pursue litigation when InterVarsity had already been “granted everything it requested in a timely manner.”
The ruling, though, stands to benefit other student groups or chapters at other schools by underscoring the importance of fair treatment and religious freedom. Lori Windham, who represented InterVarsity as senior counsel at Becket, said, “The law is crystal clear: universities can’t kick religious student groups off campus just because they choose leaders who share their faith.”
When they get kicked off campus or pursue legal challenges, “it may be evangelicals who make the headlines because we have the resources,” InterVarsity’s external relations director Greg Jao told CT last year, but the resulting First Amendment protections also help minority faith groups who lose out because of the same policies. “We should be standing there with the Sikh groups, the Hindu groups… those who are most vulnerable.”
The US Department of Education enacted a final rule late last year prohibiting public colleges and universities from discriminating against religious student organizations over their “beliefs, practices, policies, speech, membership standards, or leadership standards” and clarified their right to official recognition, facility usage, and funding alongside other groups.
Original post (March 9, 2018): Just two days after InterVarsity Christian Fellowship filed a lawsuit against Wayne State University, the Detroit school decided to let the chapter regain its official status on campus once again—one of the quickest initial victories in a string of legal battles over Christian groups at public colleges.
Last year, InterVarsity lost its recognition as a student group at Wayne State, the third-largest school in Michigan, over requirements that its leaders affirm the organization’s Christian beliefs. The school viewed the belief requirement as a violation of its nondiscrimination policy.
InterVarsity sued on Tuesday, claiming religious discrimination; other student groups allowed on campus similarly ask leaders to share certain core values. Wayne State ultimately re-certified the student ministry on Thursday.
“We’re so glad that Wayne State is letting us back on campus,” said Cristina Garza, former president and current member of Wayne State’s InterVarsity chapter, which dates back 75 years and is one of the oldest in the country. “We hope the school will make this change permanent, so no other students have to go through what we’ve been through over the last six months.”
InterVarsity is all too familiar with the fight for campus access, having lost then regained its place on 19 Cal State campuses in 2014 and 2015 due to the schools’ “all comers” policy, which requires school-sanctioned groups to open membership eligibility to all students and leadership positions to all members. Such a policy also led to InterVarsity getting forced off Vanderbilt University’s campus a few years before.
Across more than 1,000 chapters at 687 college campuses, InterVarsity opens membership to all students, and about a quarter of participants are “not-yet-Christian,” the ministry reports. However, InterVarsity continues to require its student leaders to be Christians and to affirm its core beliefs.
The Wayne State saga comes weeks after similar issues at other major universities. Last month, Harvard put a Christian group on a year-long probation for asking a student in a same-sex relationship to leave the organization.
“We reject any notion that we discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in our fellowship,” the leaders of Harvard College Faith and Action stated. “Broadly speaking, the student in this case was removed because of an irreconcilable theological disagreement pertaining to our character standards.”
Becket, a religious liberty advocacy group which represented InterVarsity in the Wayne State suit, also helped a Christian group regain its status at the University of Iowa earlier this year.
Business Leaders in Christ lost its place on campus over a “sexual morality” requirement in its faith statement, which kept a gay student from taking on a leadership role in the organization. Back in January, a judge ordered that the group be reinstated, though litigation is pending.
Baptist Press reported that the Baptist State Convention of Michigan had shifted its funding toward church plants in college towns over on-campus student groups, a strategic decision that may become a necessary move if campus access issues continue.
“Our religious liberty and our opportunity to share as openly as we have in the past” at colleges and universities “is under attack,” said Tim Patterson, executive director of Michigan Baptists. Baptists “have to rethink how we do ministry on campus because the campus has changed.”
Evangelicals themselves are largely split on nondiscrimination regulations at public universities, with 51 percent in favor of allowing belief requirements for student leaders and 44 percent opposed, LifeWay Research found in 2015.
Americans overall are open to exemptions for groups with religious convictions on sexual morality. More than two-thirds (68%) of Americans say public universities shouldn’t only fund religious groups if they allow gay or lesbian leaders, according to the survey.
Recent nondiscrimination policies at college campuses have increasingly brought faith groups under scrutiny, but as CT has reported, the issue of campus access has a long history:
Even before the Christian Legal Society (CLS) narrowly lost its 2010 Supreme Court case protesting the Hastings School of Law’s “all comers” policy, universities were struggling to find a balance between religious freedom and anti-discrimination ….
As far back as 1997, Grinnell College in Iowa banned InterVarsity because of its unwillingness to select a noncelibate gay leader. Later, several schools including Tufts University, Rutgers, and the University of North Carolina (UNC) also derecognized InterVarsity because requiring leaders to be Christians violated the schools’ anti-discrimination codes. UNC reversed its decision just weeks later; Rutgers settled out of court; and Tufts reinstated InterVarsity but later reversed it. InterVarsity recently lost campus access at SUNY Buffalo and Bowdoin College as well.
“It’s good that Wayne State saw the light after it felt the heat,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “This kind of official religious discrimination should never happen again.”