The United States Commission on Civil Rights held a public briefing Friday in order to take a closer look at how the nation's nondiscrimination principles are coexisting with those of religious liberty.
The half-day meeting between expert panelists and the commission reflected the divided sentiment in the country over such issues as the HHS mandate and college campus access for Christian fellowship groups, InterVarsity National Field Director for the Northeast Greg Jao told The Christian Post.
"It's interesting how partisan and divided both the panel and commission seem to be, which really reflects the conversation we are having in the country about religious liberty," said Jao, who attended the briefing. More than 17 different chapters of InterVarsity have sent in reports to the commission for review and 10 more chapters plan to do the same, he said.
"What we are experiencing on campus isn't a marginal or small issue but actually a significant civil rights issue with national consequences," he stressed. "We are at a place in our country where the angularity of our religious beliefs becomes not a distinctive thing that we should protect but instead it becomes a distraction."
Over the last several years, some colleges have tried to, and in some cases successfully, implement policies that prohibit religious student groups from using religious criteria in leadership selection. The Civil Rights commission announced last month it would be holding the briefing focused on reconciling nondiscrimination policies with religious liberties.
Jao said that he is encouraged by the fact that the commission viewed the tension that Christian clubs are experiencing at college campuses as significant enough for it to take a serious look at the problem by holding a briefing and inviting public comment and panelists to submit expert opinions.
"Even if the commission doesn't come up with recommendations that would enable us to protect religious liberty more effectively, the fact that it does draw attention to the problem which is part of the battle is all for the good," he observed.
The issue came to the forefront for InterVarsity 10 years ago when campuses such as Harvard and Rutgers attempted to limit the ministry on campus because it requires student leaders to affirm InterVarsity's doctrinal statement. 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, according to officials with the group.
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 nondiscrimination policies to permit religious student groups to use religious criteria in leadership selection. InterVarsity has always affirmed the applicability of nondiscrimination policies to group membership.
The commission is accepting written comments from the public until April 21.
"I would be very grateful if the commission came up with a set of recommendations that served to protect religious liberty while simultaneously creating an inclusive, diverse pulpit square that is part of what it means to be in America," Jao said.