The California State University system recently has de-recognized any student organization that does not follow an “all comers” policy in their organizations’ membership standards, not only for members, but also for leaders.  Especially noticeable in this draconian move  is the impact on campus ministry groups, such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (go here).  Their practice is to welcome all people as members of their organization, but they reserve the right to choose student leaders on the basis of students’ agreement with the InterVarsity statement of faith and their lifestyle commitments.  InterVarsity has been in the news quite a bit since the Vanderbilt controversy (go here).  John Hawthorne (go here), a sociologist who teaches at Spring Arbor University, offers some thoughtful commentary on the complexities of the Cal State matter.

Remember, Christian ministry groups have been on college campuses for 50+ years, so this recent turn in interpreting non-discrimination laws should give us pause.  Keep that fact in mind for background.

Other than what I need to know for the work I do on campus, I do not have thorough knowledge of the laws being applied in this case.  But, as most of my friends have heard me say, I have a million opinions, even about things about which I know little.  In the present situation, I have two main concerns, one about the law (with the aforementioned acknowledged ignorance) and one a hopefully useful analogy to gain understanding as to what these acts of de-recognition mean.

First the law(s) being deployed in these decisions:  Anti-discrimination policies originated with concerns about mainly political and economic discrimination, that is, in matters like being able to vote or run for office and in employment.  Simply put, you can’t decide not to hire someone because of their race, religion, and the other statuses now covered by this law.  Couple these laws with the principle of separation of church and state and you have the conundrum now before us.  A university that receives government funding is duty bound to extend anti-discrimination laws to all corners of its organization – except, of course, where we generally don’t want it to extend, like Greek letter fraternities and sororities who do discriminate for all kinds of reasons.  With such exceptions noted, an increasing number of schools are now interpreting the law to apply to a student organization that derives benefit from recognition on campus and access to usage of facilities and sometimes even funding through a school’s program council or some other similar office.  Such an organization must match all the laws’ stipulations or risk being de-recognized.  The organizations with the biggest target on their backs are religious ones, especially evangelical Protestant ones.

You should know that some state schools have included an exemption in their student organization guidelines to permit religious groups to adhere to their missional values in determining qualifications for leadership (e.g. Ohio State University and the University of Florida, at least when I last checked).  Apparently, the State laws in California are more stringent.  Nevertheless, when we take the wide view, it is pretty difficult not to draw the conclusion that Christian campus ministry groups with more fixed doctrines are seen as law-breakers because they “discriminate.”

I work on a college campus and have for twenty years.  I can tell you there’s all kinds of discrimination going on, albeit most of the time not within those legally protected categories.  But since there is discrimination of other kinds, let’s consider an analogy.

We discriminate according to skill and commitment all the time.  Athletics is the obvious example, but think of others.  A student who qualifies for an academic (merit-based) scholarship and who joins an honors program has gone through a vetting process to demonstrate qualification and commitment.  If you join an honors program, you are promising that you will uphold that program’s standards and engage in the activities associated with that program.  You’re not likely to make it into the marching band if you don’t play one of the instruments that band director wants in the band and know how to march.

And perhaps closer to our point, a professor gets to determine pre-requisites for her classes and who it is who qualifies to take them.  In other words, she can discriminate.  She can decide that a student doesn’t qualify to be in the class and she can determine that a student is distracting others and have that student removed from the class – permanently.

So, rather than thinking about “discrimination” in the usual sense, what if we thought about what these campus ministry leaders are trying to do more along the lines of education and development?  They have an educational and developmental mission – to bear fruit for the Kingdom, to introduce people to Jesus Christ and help them grow as disciples and servants.  Leadership in these groups involves a version of skill and commitment similar to what I’ve named above.  Some of what campus ministers do is not unlike an academic class.  Students study and learn and practice, without academic credit, of course, and without the status associated with professors and academic courses.

Regarding how schools decide whether to recognize a particular campus ministry group, I think this analogy helps.  Imagine if a professor was forced to take any student who simply wanted take the class, even if that class had pre-requisites.  I can tell you, the professor in question would legitimately complain about academic freedom, about the infringement upon her ability to do her job.

Now think of the campus ministers who are trying to meet a discipleship goal (pedagogy, by the way, just is a kind of discipleship).  Imagine being forced to take anyone as a small group or Bible study leader, even if that person is completely ignorant of the Bible and the doctrines associated with the group.

I realize that the reality on the ground will likely look much different than the alarming scenarios people have drawn over atheists infiltrating campus ministries and the Young Republicans taking over the Young Democrats.  I understand that the California law has qualifications to try to prevent this sort of thing.  But that’s not my main point.  It is, rather, that people making these decisions need to see this situation from another angle, from the educational mission of campus ministries (and the benefit for the common good such educational ministries have on a campus).  The  laws that tie ministry leaders’ hands in determining who is qualified to serve as leaders in the organizations for which those leaders are responsible – those laws are unjust.



Cal State, InterVarsity and Religious Discrimination

2 thoughts on “Cal State, InterVarsity and Religious Discrimination

  • September 15, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Steve: Thanks for linking to my piece (interested readers can also check out my response to the Bowdoin decision here

    Two other levels of complexity I’d add to your piece (and I share ignorance on these questions). First, is there a sense in which schools are trying to make sure that student organizations are open to ALL students; not just as a legal accommodation in light of the Harding decision but because they really think that should what legitimated student organizations are for?

    Second, what’s the difference between a campus ministry operated by the UMC on the one hand and a student organization on the other? Do their meetings differ in character? Or is one supported by a denomination (and likely meets across the street from campus) and the other by student fees?



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