(Photo: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship)
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has 860 chapters at universities throughout the country.
So when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that a public law school in San Francisco could deny the Christian Legal Society recognition because it bars gays, InterVarsity president Alec Hill knew it would have ripple effects.
"I hate the idea that InterVarsity and other religious groups may become second-class citizens who really aren't part of the 'in' group, if you will, of the recognized student groups," he told The Christian Post Wednesday.
"It's a significant statement of role shifts of who's in and who's out. Evangelical groups are out," he lamented. "To me, it seems just wrong-headed."
Hill doesn't know what to expect when the new school year begins in the fall. Some schools may move forward in a hostile manner against recognizing such campus groups as InterVarsity. Others may take a broader view of accommodating religious pluralism, he said.
One thing's for sure though: the high court decision makes things more difficult for student groups, according to Hill.
On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling against the Christian Legal Society. The nearly 50-year-old Christian group had filed a lawsuit after it was denied recognition by the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. The school said CLS' bylaws did not comply with Hastings' policy because they excluded students based on religion and sexual orientation.
CLS requires voting members and leaders to sign a statement of faith, which includes a tenet stating that sexual activity should not occur outside of marriage between a man and a woman. In other words, those who engage in "unrepentant homosexual conduct" cannot hold a leadership position or vote in the club.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court upheld Hastings' unique policy that states that Registered Student Organizations must allow all students to participate, become a member or seek leadership positions, regardless of status or beliefs.
"It's a bit nonsensical because in theory it waters down all the distinctives of any group whatsoever and makes them all homogeneous," Hill commented. "This decision requires a Democratic Student group to accept Republicans as leaders. Or a Muslim group to have Orthodox Jews as leaders. Or the Sierra Club to have leaders who deny global warming."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion that Hastings' so-called "all-comers policy" was "reasonable" and "viewpoint-neutral" and did not violate CLS' right to free speech or impair the group's right to expressive association. Groups can choose between welcoming "all students" and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, which include minimal funding, access to facilities and access to channels to communicate with students, she wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito pointed out that the all-comers policy was only imposed after the lawsuit against Hastings was filed. And then a third policy was rolled out later.
"The adoption of a facially neutral policy for the purpose of suppressing the expression of a particular viewpoint is viewpoint discrimination," he said.
The court did not rule on CLS' claim that the all-comers policy was selectively enforced. The issue was remanded back to the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court.
Though a narrow decision, the language used in the majority opinion will likely be cited in future court cases.
Samuel B. Casey, general counsel at Advocates International commented, "[T]he Court's decision ... does not bring to an end almost two decades of unconstitutional discrimination by administrators on many public law school campuses against CLS and other religious student groups simply because of their Christian faith when, as occurred in this case, no such viewpoint discrimination is being experienced by any other student groups."
Discrimination and litigation are not foreign to InterVarsity. The group filed a lawsuit four years ago against the University of Wisconsin after it was "derecognized" for the 2006-2007 school year. The university contended that the Christian group's Doctrinal Basis of Faith that leaders have to affirm violated its anti-discrimination policy.
InterVarsity argued, however, that the university’s position violated First Amendment religious and free speech rights, as well as freedom of association and self-identification of organizations.
"It also violates simple logic: an organization must be able to choose leaders that identify with its goals and its reason for existence," the group stated.
Months after the suit was filed, the university adopted a policy change that allows student groups to limit officer positions to students who affirm the group's goals and beliefs.
Though a win for InterVarsity, under the latest Supreme Court decision, the group might have lost the case, said Hill.
InterVarsity has had to deal with similar difficulties with recognition on a number of other campuses, including Harvard University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Arizona, Boise State University and Rutgers in New Jersey.
InterVarsity chapters are located on both private and public campuses. Though they have no legal protection at private colleges, the Constitution protects the chapters at public universities, the ministry leader noted.
Over the past several decades, particularly since the Widmar v. Vincent case in 1981, the Supreme Court has ruled against public universities singling out student groups because of their points of view. Religious groups were ensured greater access to public facilities. But this week's decision was out of line with precedent, Hill said.
"This case obviously is a serious reversal of that trend," said Hill, who previously taught law.
Despite the barriers InterVarsity has faced and will likely continue to face, the evangelical group has seen tremendous growth in recent years. New believers, or those who make decisions for Christ, are up 68 percent since 2005 and the number of staff – a third of whom became Christian in college – is at a record high, Hill said.
Whatever the impact of the court decision, Hill said confidently that they will continue to operate whether they have to find space off-campus or find other ways of communicating with students.
"We believe that God is bigger than all of this and He's sovereign," he said. "While this is discouraging and will make our work more difficult, it does not cripple the Gospel on campus."