Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Preserving Pluralism in University Student Organizations

Chelsea Langston


By Chelsea Langston

October 6, 2014


In college, I was involved in a University of Michigan student organization called the Detroit Partnership (The DP) which connects Detroit and the University of Michigan through mutually beneficial community partnerships. The DP’s mission states that “As a multicultural organization, we strive to raise awareness, break stereotypes, and promote social justice through our service-learning programs.”

As a group, we were Jewish and Atheist and Christian and Muslim. We were gay and straight. We were of different races and ages and genders. We were vegetarian hippies and three-cheese meat-lover pizza types (which made our dinner meetings interesting). The DP leadership encouraged students get involved in the Detroit Partnership to challenge their preconceived notions of Detroit and to develop relationships with Detroit residents doing amazing things. We encouraged students to volunteer for a clean-up day or a semester-long tutoring program in Detroit even if they started out believing all the negative stereotypes associated with the city, were volunteering as a resume builder, or initially thought that their socio-economic status put them in the position to give more than they would gain.  We believed that all student volunteers would be impacted by their personal experiences of service in Detroit, and their perceptions of themselves and the Detroit community would be changed for the better.

While any university student could be a volunteer, come to a mass meeting of the DP, or support the cause financially, to serve on the Leadership Team, students had to go through a nerve-racking and intense application and interview process. The DP leaders wanted to ensure that any new potential DP leadership held the same positive, uplifting perspective on Detroit, service-learning, and social justice that our mission espoused. Leadership candidates had to prove and explain, through their words and their past experiences, why they would convey a positive image of Detroit/U of M partnerships throughout the university community.

The DP, while a secular student organization, had a worldview it was seeking to perpetuate, one that promoted the notions of multiculturalism, social justice, service-learning, and community partnership building. It was imperative that the leadership of this student organization reflected the core mission and values that the organization had set out.

The DP, like any other student organization, should be allowed to make organizational decisions about student leadership, activities, and governance that allow the DP to carry out its mission. These decisions will always demand a level of judgment, discernment, and the provision of clear definitions of what the organization does and does not believe. However, faith-based student groups similarly bringing together students with a particular worldview in common to learn, socialize, and often enact service-oriented activities in their communities, are facing threats. I am not being alarmist here. 

While in college, I was also involved in the leadership of a campus ministry called Cru. When the news emerged from California about a certain faith-based group losing its official student organization status, I first saw it posted by several of my college friends from Cru. It immediately caught their attention because it raised questions about the future of faith-based student groups on campuses across the country. In contrast, this news created virtually no ripples or alarm bells from my former DP peers. Why would it?  No one is suggesting that there would be any threats to groups who have clearly defined perspectives and missions and selection processes for leadership, as long as these groups do not espouse a religious worldview.

In 2010, the Supreme Court decision Christian Legal Society v. Martinez turned on its head the longstanding rights of faith-based student organizations to come together, gain the same status and privileges as other student groups, and meet on public college campuses. The university had dispossessed CLS of equal access to the resources and campus space offered to other student groups. The court held that the university was not in violation of CLS’s first amendment rights, assuming the university put in place a policy that necessitated all student groups to allow all students to serve as voting members and leaders, despite any individual contradictory beliefs or actions to that particular student group.

In practice, no one would question the rights of the DP to select leaders who have positive attitudes toward Detroit, are able to work with diverse populations, and who are genuinely service oriented. The associational rights we are guaranteed in the Constitution allow organizations like the DP to thrive and enact positive change in their communities.  But, as Harvey Silvergate pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article, these rights to congregate and organize with like-minded individuals into groups are “apparently foreign to college administrators, especially regarding religious students who hold out-of-favor views about marriage and abortion rights….. it is the constitutional right of students to hold unpopular beliefs and collectively espouse them.”

So what are we going to do about it? Whatever group you may have been involved with as a student, this limitation of rights of faith-based student organizations should bother you. We live in a society (and campuses are microcosms and breeding grounds of that society) where a marketplace of ideas and plurality of perspectives should be allowed to flourish. If you aren’t speaking out on this because you were a member of a group like the Detroit Partnership in college and not a religious group like Hillel, then ultimately, you are doing a disservice to today’s college students who should have a diversity of student groups to join that reflect the diversity of their religious beliefs, social values, hobbies, skill sets, demographic backgrounds, and any otherwise quirky and idiosyncratic proclivities.

Deprivation of faith-based groups on campus means deprivation of exposure to different modes of seeing the world, and less diversity in the public square of student ideas. We need to give students the dignity and constitutional freedoms they deserve to associate together, form organizations around shared values, interests, or causes, and truly live out their visions without diluting who and what they really stand for. 


- 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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