Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Civil Discourse and Principled Pluralism on University Campuses
By Chelsea Langston
December 15, 2014
Local chapters of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a well-known and long-established student ministry, have lost their official student group status at the twenty-three campuses of California State University. This evangelical Christian student organization, international in nature and present in the United States since 1941, espouses a leadership policy analogous to virtually all student affinity organizations in any college or university in the United States. InterVarsity requires its leaders to follow the basic belief system and viewpoint that it puts forward, which in this case, are the tenets of the Christian faith.
The California State University system, with its 447,000 students, claims that InterVarsity’s requirement that its leaders reflect the beliefs and mission of the organization contradicts the university’s nondiscrimination policy. This policy mandates that the leadership (and, for that matter, membership) of all official student groups be directed by a “come one, come all” policy. InterVarsity permits membership regardless of religious affiliation, but requires that leaders confirm their acceptance of the truth of the entirety of the bible.
Almost five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez that a public university can choose to deny recognition to a faith-based student group with an “open door” policy if its theological tenets are de facto discriminatory.
According to InterVarsity.org, although the student organization has received challenges to its official student status from over ten universities and colleges, “In most but not all of these cases, agreement was reached so that InterVarsity could remain on campus as a registered student organization.”
For example, at Ohio State University, the administration chose to rewrite its student organization registration guidelines to accommodate the leadership policies of religious student groups like InterVarsity. The Ohio State guidelines now say: “A student organization formed to foster or affirm the sincerely held religious beliefs of its members may adopt eligibility criteria for its Student Officers that are consistent with those beliefs.” This simple, concise policy change protects the pluralism already found on most college campuses around the country, carving out a space for students of faith to participate in the “marketplace” of official student organizations.
Ohio State administrators made a proactive, explicit change to their guidelines to provide accommodations to faith-based student groups. This action, and the language of the accommodation itself, should serve as a model for explicit changes to university guidelines across the country.
However, several other major universities, including the University of Michigan, have not made explicit changes to their nondiscrimination policies. Instead, by their actions, they have provided exceptions for InterVarsity to maintain its official student group registration. In December of 2012, AIV (the Asian InterVarsity Chapter) was derecognized on the University of Michigan campuses because the chapter’s constitution mandates leaders to sign and adhere to InterVarsity’s Doctrinal Basis and Chapter Covenant. However, the University of Michigan later backpedaled, saying that AIV’s re-registration was delayed because they missed a re-registration deadline.
Following the university’s declaration of AIV’s re-registration, InterVarsity released a response stating that by re-recognizing the AIV chapter, the university had in practice crafted “an exemption to its non-discrimination policies to allow religious student organizations to use religious criteria in selecting their leaders. AIV has not changed its constitution in any way.” Further, InterVarsity’s National Field Director Greg Jao commended the university for its “common sense approach” in promoting diversity, including religious diversity, on campus. Jao went on to say that InterVarsity would work with the University of Michigan in the future to formalize the accommodation.
In an official statement on April 12, 2013, the University of Michigan said:
“Free speech and diversity, including religious diversity, are core principles at U-M. We value the existence of the Asian InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, along with the other sixty-nine faith-based student organizations at U-M. Their existence and their voices add significantly to our academic community and support those students who find solace, camaraderie, and guidance in their presence.”
By my estimation, the significance of this statement was largely overlooked by both academic and Christian communities. However, the statement demonstrates the university’s recognition of the importance of religious groups in its encouragement of principled pluralism on campus. By definition, principled pluralism mandates that government do justice to nongovernmental institutions, including religious organizations, by giving them space to thrive and contribute to the public square. In this case, the “governing bodies” over student groups are universities like California State University, University of Michigan, and Ohio State University.
Each of these universities has taken a different approach to balancing the rights of faith-based student groups and the rights of individual students to participate in any group they wish. Principled pluralism thrives best where the diversity of students, and their rights to assemble around common beliefs and affinities, is truly embraced. While Ohio State and the University of Michigan may be taking different paths to get there, they are engaging in civil, tolerant, and meaningful conversations with members of religious student groups that are bringing about the flourishing of a diverse student body, both individually and organizationally.
- Chelsea Langston is an attorney who works for a nonprofit association in Maryland. She is also a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”