InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University

In a masterpiece of a ruling, the Supreme Court this week declared that government employees may not openly loathe Christianity. This is what court watchers call a limited ruling. The Court did not settle the question of whether or not beleaguered evangelical bakers must bake cakes for gay weddings. Nor did it provide much guidance on whether or not government employees may subtly and secretly loathe Christianity.

Some of those more subtle government employees work for Wayne State University, which this week renewed a two-year-old bid to decertify a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Admittedly, it is asking a lot for university officials to tolerate the presence of an organization that promotes social justice, racial reconciliation, and inductive Bible Study. IVCF’s problem, in the eyes of university administrators, is that it insists that student leaders sign the organization’s statement of faith.

My blood pressure rises when I read about yet another university’s attempt to do away with IVCF. My own alma mater, Middlebury College, crusaded against IVCF a number of years ago. Okay, Middlebury doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation for free inquiry these days. But back in 1990s, I spent four years as a member and leader of IVCF (I probably had to sign something to do so), and I met my wife through IVCF, so I’m emotionally invested on this issue.

Of course, it has occurred to me that IVCF may have changed since the 1990s. Perhaps its hierarchy has become bent on making evangelicalism great again and now sends members to build the wall over spring break. Or perhaps the organization harasses Muslim or LGBT students. Nope. You can read IVCF’s statement of faith here. It’s not exactly hateful. Lots of divine love, mercy, and grace.

In 2010’s CLS v. Martinez, the Supreme Court actually ruled on the merits of a case and held that public universities may deny recognition and funding to student organizations that exclude LGBT students. From my vantage point, the court in 2010 was insufficiently concerned to protect the equal treatment of religious organizations on campus. In any event, CLS did not settle the matter, because most organizations such as IVCF now at least strike a more welcoming pose toward gay and lesbian students. [I’m a bit fuzzy on IVCF’s recent history and welcome further enlightenment via comment or email. IVCF in 2016 required its employees to discountenance same-sex marriage, but I’m not sure how it handles student membership or leadership on this issue].

The Becket Fund, which is representing IVCF in its lawsuit against Wayne State and the State of Michigan, cites Masterpiece in a recent brief for the argument that a government institution “cannot act in a manner that passes judgment upon or presupposes the illegitimacy of religious beliefs and practices.”

Wayne State officials, however, have not acted like the civil rights commissioners in Colorado. They have not openly loathed Christianity or disparaged the beliefs of IVCF students.

Still, IVCF and its lawyers argue that Wayne State, like most public and private universities, allows certain forms of discrimination by student organizations. It allows fraternities to exclude women and sororities to exclude men. It at least tacitly allows race-based and faith-based discrimination in the selection of leaders when it comes to African American, Jewish, and Muslim student organizations. Those organizations may have constitutions that express an openness to all students, but IVCF at the very least is far more inclusive than fraternities and sororities. IVCF thus argues that the university is singling it out for non-compliance.

In response, the university will argue that it fairly enforces an “all-comers” policy. And given the precedent of CLS v. Martinez, the university might well prevail despite its obvious hypocrisy.

A few thoughts:

– It would be easy for the Wayne State IVCF chapter to comply. It stands to reason that IVCF students would still elect Christians as their officers. IVCF has not chosen that path. Instead, across the country, IVCF has stood its ground out of a belief that many private and public universities discriminate against Christian groups on campus.

– As I have argued in many posts, all Americans benefit from a diverse array of perspectives on campus, and organizations like IVCF and Cru have been vital for the maintenance of evangelical points of view. Especially because of its commitments to interreligious understanding, racial reconciliation, and the intellectual exploration of the Christian faith, IVCF is precisely the sort of group that university administrators should bend over backwards to accommodate. Instead, institutions such as Tufts and Vanderbilt have become less rather than more diverse in recent years because of administration vendettas against groups such as IVCF.

– IVCF opposes same-sex marriage. This is probably one reason why IVCF’s legal efforts have attracted little sympathy from non-evangelicals. That stance, though, does not disqualify IVCF or other organizations from a place on public campuses. In Obergefell, the Court insisted that “religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”

The Court in Masterpiece warned government institutions and officials against the open denigration of religious beliefs. It remains to be seen is whether students, faculty, politicians, and justices will continue to tolerate subtle and creeping discrimination against Christian campus organizations such as IVCF.

 

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