(Image courtesy InterVarsity Christian Fellowship)
InterVarsity's Greg Jao explains, "Just last week, Rollins College in Florida derecognized the InterVarsity Chapter, and the Board of Trustees approved that decision." In a February 22nd statement, the Board said, "The principles of the nondiscrimination policy, which are at the heart of the educational process, are inconsistent with allowing exceptions for student organizations; such exceptions would be inconsistent with the processes of learning and growth that the College seeks to foster."
The irony is that by applying non-discrimination principles, the college limits authentic religious expression on campus and permits discrimination against religious groups. Rollins joins Harvard, Rutgers, Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota, Maryland, Tufts, and Vanderbilt Universities in this wave of higher education communities that questioned InterVarsity's leadership policies.
Because InterVarsity requires student leaders to affirm InterVarsity's doctrinal statement, Jao says the issue is part of the dialogue asking the question, "What is the role of religion in public conversation?"
"Where it's coming into tension is as they're pursuing that, they've decided that religious groups may not use religious criteria for selecting their leaders because it prevents non-religious people from leading those groups."
Since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of CLS v. Martinez, even more campuses have pressed InterVarsity and other campus ministries on the use of religious criteria to select student leaders.
In some cases, university administrators listened to the arguments made by InterVarsity about having a say in the "Marketplace of Ideas." Harvard and Rutgers--and more recently at schools such as Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota, Maryland, and Tufts--have amended their non-discrimination policies to permit religious student groups to use religious criteria in leadership selection.
For example, at Ohio State University, the student organization registration guidelines now state: "A student organization formed to foster or affirm the sincerely held religious beliefs of its members may adopt eligibility criteria for its Student Officers that are consistent with those beliefs." It should be noted that InterVarsity has always affirmed the applicability of nondiscrimination policies to group membership.
Jao suggests, "A truly diverse, tolerant environment would welcome the presence of a religious group on campus." However, not all schools agree. Last year, 14 religious organizations at Vanderbilt University, including several InterVarsity chapters, were prohibited from becoming registered student organizations because they follow the guidelines of their faith in choosing leaders.
As a result, those organizations, which represent over 10% of the students on campus, may not partner with registered student groups for the purposes of community service, worship, or learning. They also have limited access to Vanderbilt campus facilities for their meetings, and they enjoy none of the privileges extended to all other student organizations.
Now, Jao says, the conversation has gotten national attention. "The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently announced a briefing on March 22 to explore the question of ‘What's the intersection between current discrimination policies and religious liberties?'" The Commission will be studying that question and its impact on college/university campuses, Jao adds. "InterVarsity is submitting briefs as well as testimonies for the hearing. It's a great panel that they've assembled: Christian Legal Society, the ACLU, The Beckett Fund, as well as Americans For the Separation of Church and State."
Part of that question may explore the double standard that's applied to religious groups. Fraternities and sororities are allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender, and athletic teams are allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender and able-bodied status. But Jao notes that InterVarsity and other religious organizations are treated differently. Worse, "We're no longer perceived as trusted advisors or contributors to the common good, and actually, often perceived as somewhat divisive."
That becomes a burden that InterVarsity leaders and students shoulder. Jao says, "Students at Tufts University are still seeing, almost weekly, articles in the school newspaper denouncing their presence on campus. That has a weighty effect on their spirit, so pray for encouragement and endurance for our staff."
However, Jao adds that the good news is: "Students on our college campuses are responding to this as a call to greater boldness in evangelism and discipleship." It could also be a call to action. "I would ask the Church to pray and to send more students to our secular colleges and universities. Jesus needs to be made known there."
Overall, InterVarsity remains hopeful that this investigation by the Civil Rights Commission will result in more colleges and universities being willing to resolve perceived conflicts between non-discrimination policies and our country's strong heritage of religious freedom.
In the meantime, Jao asks, "Would you pray that InterVarsity staff and students are able, with both grace and truth, as Jesus did, to engage college administrators?"