InterVarsity to File Brief on Attempts to Restrict Religious Liberties at Universities

Leaders at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship look forward to submitting statements to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about incidents where universities have attempted to restrict the religious liberties of student groups in the name of non-discrimination, the organization said Thursday.

Over the last several years, some colleges have tried to, and in some cases successfully, implemented policies that call for religious student groups to not use religious criteria in leadership selection. The Civil Rights commission announced last month a briefing to be focused on reconciling non-discrimination policies with religious liberties scheduled for later this month.

"We're very excited and very pleased that the commission is looking into this issue," Intervarsity National Field Director for the Northeast Greg Jao told The Christian Post. "For universities to suggest that leaders don't need to hold their beliefs imposes a very foreign theology on these groups. A theology that says leadership requirements don't matter.

"We're hoping the commission both sheds some light on it and provides some guidance on how universities and student ministries can move forward."

The issue came to the forefront for InterVarsity ten 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 non-discrimination 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.

"These schools recognize that religious organizations should not be forced into a position which would threaten their religious vitality," InterVarsity stated. 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."

However, some schools will not allow any exceptions to their non-discrimination policy, at least when it comes to religious organizations, according to InterVarsity.

"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 InterVarsity and other religious organizations are treated differently," the campus ministry states.

"Universities that continue to pursue this unreflective non-discrimination policy are no longer doing this because of ignorance of the issue, they are intentionally making a statement about their posture towards religious groups," Jao told CP.

InterVarsity says that 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 percent 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.

Last week, the Board of Trustees of Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., rejected a request by the school's InterVarsity chapter to be allowed to require its leaders to be followers of the Christian faith. 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."

InterVarsity officials responded by saying that for the Rollins Board, "non-discrimination principles permit the college to limit authentic religious expression on campus and to discriminate against religious groups."

Jao said he believes there should not be any requirements for religious clubs, including Christian, which would make students have to alter their beliefs.

"No faithful Muslim student association would say they would like to be led by a non-Muslim leader of the association. That would contradict their beliefs," he said.

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