Controversy Heats Up Over Exclusionary Religious Groups

Scott Varley, Daily Breeze

The InterVarsity Christian Fellowship meets at a lecture hall at Cal State at Long Beach. The university recently denied the group official recognition because it refused to drop a requirement that its leaders be Christians.
October 06, 2014

Last month, California State University, with its 23 campuses and nearly 450,000 students, withdrew official recognition from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, a national group with branches on many Cal State campuses. The group had refused to eliminate a policy that required its student leaders to pledge that they were devout Christians.

Cal State officials concluded that that put InterVarsity in conflict with both state law and university rules that forbid discrimination based on, among other things, religious identity. Jews and Muslims cannot lead the group. Similarly, neither can gay students who do not disavow active sexuality.

InterVarsity has clashed in this way with a number of colleges, sometimes resulting in lawsuits—with varying outcomes—but InterVarsity and similar groups say the Cal State situation signals a turning point in the acceptance of traditionalist religious groups on campuses.

"The point of a nondiscrimination policy" in the clauses pertaining to religion "is to prevent a religious group from being stigmatized—to treat them equally because of their religious function," said Gregory L. Jao, a national field director of InterVarsity. "We are being penalized by the very policy that was intended to protect us."

InterVarsity is now barred from official events at which student groups recruit members; on some campuses, it must pay to rent space for meetings (though some Cal State branches waive fees, or reduce them, for unofficial groups). Mr. Jao said the total annual costs could hit $30,000 on some campuses, although Michael Uhlenkamp, a university spokesman, called that figure "highly inflated."

Defenders of religious groups are consulting their lawyers and waiting to see what the full implications of the Cal State decision are. Although Cal State has tended to speak only of InterVarsity’s derecognition, Sonoma State University confirmed that Athletes in Action, part of Campus Crusade for Christ International, has not met its standards for recognition. Mr. Jao and Kim Colby, senior counsel for the Christian Legal Society, said they knew of other groups that would be derecognized but declined to name them because the groups were weighing actions.

Mr. Uhlenkamp calls Cal State’s approach "the exact opposite" of inhibiting speech: By requiring student groups to admit all students and make them eligible for leadership roles, the university is fostering precisely the environment for debate and discussion that it should. Legally, "we feel very secure in our position on this," he said.

But according to David J. Hacker, a senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has sued on behalf of religious groups, refusing to let Christian groups require their leaders to be devout is ultimately "silly."

"We think it’s also unconstitutional," he said.

Legal Precedents Vary

Other universities have come to conclusions different from that of Cal State—some on their own, others under legal threat or by order of state legislatures. While fighting a lawsuit against a Christian fraternity, the University of Florida in 2009 backed off and added an exemption for religious groups to its antidiscrimination policy. In 2011, Ohio’s General Assembly shut down a debate over the fate of the Christian Legal Society chapter at Ohio State University by guaranteeing that religious groups could use religious criteria to select leaders and members.

Among the private colleges that have derecognized religious groups that insist on statements of faith are Bowdoin College and Vanderbilt and Tufts Universities.

Campus leaders find themselves balancing two competing values while knowing they may land in hot water whatever they do. "We really value the contributions that religious groups make to our campus," said Mark Bandas, associate provost and dean of students at Vanderbilt. "Students often engage in intense moral and spiritual discussions, and they often do that in group settings."

At the same time, "we are not going to permit Vanderbilt student organizations to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or other protected categories."

Administrators are manifestly uneasy about the legal and social controversy. Two public universities that allow religious groups to discriminate based on beliefs declined to provide administrators to speak on the record to The Chronicle, explicitly because of the issue’s sensitivity.

A notably idiosyncratic Supreme Court decision in 2010, Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez, might have settled the issue but did not, quite. Hastings College of the Law, a stand-alone school in the University of California system, had withdrawn recognition from the Christian Legal Society chapter because it required a statement of faith for leaders. The court ruled, 5 to 4, that Hastings was within its rights not to extend recognition to the group. But it did so on very narrow grounds.

The majority said that because Hastings had an "all comers" policy for every student group—requiring them to admit all interested students and to open leadership positions to all—there was nothing discriminatory about demanding that the Christian Legal Society abide by that ground rule. Tougher to defend, the court conceded, would have been a system that let a student Democratic group limit its leadership to Democrats but did not allow Christian Legal Society to insist that its leaders be Christian. The majority said it didn’t have to examine that issue.

However, the latter situation was precisely the one in operation at Hastings, according to the furious dissenting justices. To Justice Samuel Alito, the real message of the case was: "no freedom for expression that offends prevailing standards of political correctness" on campuses.

Appeals courts are split on whether campuses with more-conventional nondiscrimination policies can refuse recognition to religious groups. In 2011 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Cal State’s right to require a Christian fraternity and sorority to open their leadership to everyone. Cal State is banking on that decision, plus Martinez.
The Seventh Circuit, on the other hand, said in 2006 that the Christian Legal Society chapter at Southern Illinois University School of Law had the right to require that its leaders be devout Christians, and to exclude homosexuals; to do otherwise, the court said, would trample the group’s right to express its views.

Given the split, "the Supreme Court will probably step in again," said Mr. Hacker, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, although there are no clear test cases making their way through the courts. United Educators, which offers risk-management advice to administrators, has emphasized the narrowness of the Martinez decision to its clients. "We would suggest that an ‘all comers’ policy is a sound approach that has successfully withstood challenge," said Constance Neary, vice president for risk management, in an email.

Cal State changed its policy in 2011 to an all-comers approach and insists that InterVarsity would not meet the standards of the older, more straightforward antidiscrimination policy. But fraternities and sororities are exempted from the all-comers approach, under Title IX, and supporters of InterVarsity see that as a vulnerable inconsistency.

‘A Broad Brush’

Adding to the recent furor over derecognition was a recent opinion piece in Christianity Today, by a former InterVarsity staff member at Vanderbilt. Titled "The Wrong Kind of Christian," it revisits that university’s decision three years ago to withdraw recognition of InterVarsity and some other campus groups. Tish Harrison Warren imagined, she wrote, that the religious groups that wound up clashing with universities were purposely combative or rigidly fundamentalist. So she was amazed when her intellectual, "progressive" students "were all painted with a broad brush, as discriminators," she recalled in an interview.

It took a couple of years for the effect to be felt, but her Vanderbilt group began to dwindle. For its part, Vanderbilt insists that it did not change its policy in 2011, merely clarified existing nondiscrimination rules, and it stresses that registered groups simply sometimes get priority over unrecognized ones for campus meeting rooms.

John Sims Baker, a priest and chaplain of University Catholic—Vanderbilt Catholic, before it was derecognized—called Vanderbilt’s policy "dishonest," also citing the fraternity example. "When the university wants to make an exception," he said, "it is more than capable of doing so."

For some observers, that raises the inflammatory question of the degree to which arguments over homosexuality are driving this debate. Vanderbilt first examined how its policies were being enforced after a student accused a Christian fraternity of expelling him because he is gay. And following the Cal State decision, a columnist in Slate dismissed claims of religious discrimination as a smoke screen and wrote: "There’s only one issue truly in play here: whether antigay student groups can force public universities to subsidize their discriminatory behavior."

Mr. Jao acknowledged that noncelibate homosexuals would not be eligible to be leaders in InterVarsity—but neither would noncelibate unmarried heterosexuals. He said he understood why homosexuals would take offense at such a view and said he felt "deep grief over the deep hurt" Christians had caused gays in the past. "Our only answer is that we think our religion compels this posture."

"For the university to fulfill its mandate, we have to have a place where challenging, even offensive conversations can be held. … Wouldn’t it be great if universities could help us have the real conversations we need to have about religion and sexuality and politics?"

At the same time, several members of InterVarsity, at Cal State and elsewhere, said disputes over sexuality did not play a big part in the lives of their groups. "Anyone who is willing to sit down and have a civilized conversation about your faith and what you believe and the Bible is welcome," said Austin Weatherby, a junior at Chico State who is an InterVarsity Bible-study leader.

So far, Mr. Weatherby’s group has been inconvenienced but not crippled, moving its meetings from a campus coffee shop to an off-campus Presbyterian church. His chapter has always had guest ministers from local churches speak, but he notices a special enthusiasm from outsiders this year.

"Different churches have bought us pizza or ice cream. They have said they are praying for us."