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Last year, Vanderbilt University rescinded recognition from around a dozen Christian groups, including Cru, InterVarsity, and a Catholic student organization with five hundred members.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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