Christians on Campus

Christians on Campus May 23, 2013

“Christians are ousted wherever possible on campus,” complained Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) founder Bill Bright a few years before his 2003 death.

With some regularity universities make news for de-recognizing student campus ministries that require their leaders to adhere to certain religious criteria (most often a statement of faith). This, a number of high-profile universities have maintained, violates policies of non-discrimination. In some instances, campus ministries have specifically excluded gay and lesbian students from positions of leadership; however, in the wake of the Christian Legal Society v. Martinez Supreme Court decision (2012), campus ministries have mostly abandoned such policies.

Last year, Vanderbilt University rescinded recognition from around a dozen Christian groups, including Cru, InterVarsity, and a Catholic student organization with five hundred members. The Vanderbilt case raised eyebrows for a number of reasons. The state legislature passed legislation intended to force the university to abandon its position, but the governor vetoed the bill. Also, it was noteworthy that while Vanderbilt expected religious groups to open their leadership positions to students of any faith (or no faith), Vanderbilt continued to allow certain student groups (namely fraternities and sororities) to discriminate on the basis of sex.

I’ve long been interested in this issue, partly because my own alma mater (Middlebury College) has had a sometimes contentious relationship with its InterVarsity chapter. Also, my first book (Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ) chronicled the story of how evangelical parachurch organizations became the most visible sign of religious activity at many large, public universities in the decades after World War II. In order to do so, organizations like Campus Crusade (not known for its diplomatic finesse in the 1950s and 1960s) had to struggle against both administrators and mainline campus ministries in order to gain access to students. Evangelicals succeeded because they went straight to the heart of campus life — to locker rooms, dormitories, and cafeterias. Access matters a great deal.

According to a recent report in the Christian Post, InterVarsity intends to file a complaint against its treatment by universities with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

I am not sure which way the wind is blowing on this issue. Campus ministries at private universities are probably going to face stiff tests in the years ahead. The CLS v. Martinez case seemed to augur poorly for campus ministries at public universities intent on upholding any policies of leadership exclusion. Nevertheless, the Christian Post reports that many universities have accommodated Christian organizations’ desire to uphold theological criteria for leadership: “[in] most cases, such as at Harvard and Rutgers, and more recently at the universities of Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota, Maryland, and Tufts – college officials have amended their non-discrimination policies to permit religious student groups to use religious criteria in leadership selection.” I am pleased to read this, because it seems like a very reasonable solution and one that should satisfy nearly all parties. I would love to know what is happening elsewhere around the country.

Although I believe that policies like those adopted by Vanderbilt are baldly hypocritical and should be unconstitutional at least as long as the university permits other forms of discrimination, evangelical ministries would probably find ways to adapt to changed circumstances. Parachurch groups are, if anything, adaptive. In any event, such policies are wrong-headed. I imagine that many university administrators prefer to exclude conservative religious groups from campus simply because they espouse a very different set of values. If universities actually believe in the diversity they attempt to promote, they have to make room for evangelical, Catholic, Muslim, and the many other student religious organizations.

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  • Marta L

    A few months back, the student senate at Texas A&M passed a bill allowing students to refuse to pay the portion of their student fees that would support a LGBT Resource Center. (The bill passed, but this article from before the final vote gives a better explanation of the issues involved.) The idea was basically that students had a right to not pay for something they disapproved of or that didn’t represent them. On its surface that seems fair. Why not just let the people who want the center to pay for it?

    To my mind, this case really misrepresents how student fees work. I’m a doctoral student and have studied at four schools (three public), so while I’m no expert I do have some experience with how student fees tend to work. And the uniting theme is when you go to a college you become part of a community. You invest in that community through student fees and the university then uses that money to sponsor programs that students would find helpful or enriching. Not every group is going to be a fit for every student, and that’s why we allow groups based on niche interests (anime! foreign films), ethnicities and even religion. This makes sense, and it provides a good basis for saying Cru has every right to limit itslef just to some of the students. After all, I would have very little interest in the fencing club or the Hispanic culture club.

    But it also requires that even the Christian students be willing to fund groups that don’t represent them. More generally, it’s hard to see Christian businesses in the news refusing to pay for contraception because they personally find it morally offensive, or to hear senators from reliably red states ask why they should pay for the disaster relief of people in New Jersey and New York, then turn around and be told that Christians get a share of their student fees to support groups that exclude them. Each of these positions about Obamacare and using federal funds to support specific regions in crisis or whatever may have legitimate points behind them. In fact, I suspect they do. But the rhetoric adds up, and I can understand how liberal students, particularly LGBT and LGBT allies who are often explicitly excluded from groups like Cru, would object to being told that (1) the school takes their money and (2) shuffles it to a group they don’t support and are not allowed to participate in if they wanted to.

    That impression is off-base, btw. Student fees are about supporting student life and groups that are useful or enriching for students in general; not every group needs to be relevant or even open to every student.

    I suspect that’s more of what’s going on. than any kind of political bias. College administrators are typically a pretty apolitical group, or at least they don’t impose their politics on their student body. They’re much more interested in avoiding a five-aspirin headache, and a political blow-up between various student groups has the potential to do just that.

  • Miles Mullin

    I think an important distinction is being drawn between public and private schools on these issues. The public-funded question was resolved by SCOTUS in Rosenberger v. Rector and Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia. It did have to do with student activity fees. The court ruled against the school, saying it could not deny a religious group funding it would normally approve (in this case to print a paper) for other groups simply because the group had a religious viewpoint. To do so (according to the court) was hiding behind the establishment clause to regulate student viewpoints. By contrast, the Vanderbilt situation does not involve student fees (to my knowledge, these groups receive no student fee monies), but simply whether or not these groups are recognized by the university for the much more mundane purposes of posting notices, reserving rooms, having personnel on campus, etc.

  • dp144

    Miles, you are correct that the issue at Vanderbilt is about being recognized by the university, not about fees. A few of the religious groups that were de-recognized received a little in student fees, but most did not. The groups now function at the hap-hazard will of the university with no written agreement. These groups can reserve rooms after registered organizations have had the opportunity to do so. However, they cannot use the university’s name in any promotional materials, they cannot co-sponsor an event with registered groups, and they cannot participate as an organization in Religious Activities Fair. In several ways, they are forced back to the fringe of the univeristy.

  • John Turner

    Thanks for the long and thoughtful post. Very good points.

  • Marta L

    That did get a little longer than I meant for it to, LOL! But I don’t really “do” short for whatever reason. Sorry about that. 🙂

  • Marta L

    Thank you for the clarification point, Miles. I am *so* not a lawyer and tend to react to stories like this more on the level of what feels right and fair to me, not what the law requires. There are benefits to that approach, but also weaknesses. I appreciated getting more a picture of the legal landscape.