InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a student group, was recently kicked off the Michigan-based Wayne State University’s campus, solely for asking it be allowed to choose leaders who share its faith. Until this trouble with the school, the student group had been on campus for over 75 years. Incidents like this have been occurring on college campuses recently at an alarming rate.
Late yesterday afternoon, just two days after InterVarsity asked a federal court to protect its right to choose leaders who affirm its faith, Wayne did an about-turn and decided to allow them back on campus — at least temporarily. Still, issues like this are not just a violation of free speech — they send a disturbing, overt message to the rest of us about what’s ahead for the public square.
Christians v. Wayne State University
After school officials stripped them of official recognition because the group requires its leaders to affirm their faith, InterVarsity sued Wayne State University, with the help of the Becket Fund, a religious liberty organization. Wayne State has over 400 student groups that contribute to its intellectual and cultural diversity, all of which are free to select leaders who embrace their mission — except this one Christian student group, naturally.
InterVarsity welcomes all students to its meetings and to join as members. Their only requirement is that the group’s leaders believe in and live out their Christian faith. Yet in 2017, Wayne State rejected the group’s constitution, derecognized InterVarsity, and canceled all of InterVarsity scheduled meetings. Wayne State said InterVarsity’s religious leadership requirements violated school policy. Meanwhile, like many other similar free speech cases on college campuses, Wayne State actively violates its own policy in many of its programs and allows dozens of other larger student groups do the same.
Lori Windham, Senior Legal Counsel at Becket which represents InterVarsity, said in a statement: “Don’t Michigan universities have bigger problems than who leads Bible studies? Wayne State should focus on educating students instead of playing belief police.”
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Wayne State is one of the oldest InterVarsity chapters in the country and has held weekly Bible studies, meetings, and organized service opportunities on campus for over 75 years. But they haven’t just kept to themselves like a Christian clique. In 2009, the group sponsored a series of campus events that raised awareness regarding human trafficking. The group regularly hosts discussions of important issues, like the intersection of faith, race, and social justice.
In response to InterVarsity’s lawsuit, the school decided that it would allow the student group back on campus. It is unclear whether the school’s change is permanent.
Matt Lockwood, director of communications at Wayne, told me in an emailed statement:
Wayne State University values student groups as an integral part of campus life and co-curricular learning. We strive to foster student groups that are inclusive, diverse, and expand student experiences. After a review of the situation and communicating with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship organization, Wayne State has decided to recertify the group as an official student organization. The InterVarsity student group is committed to welcoming and including all students, and the university will not intervene in the group’s leadership selection.
Free Speech for me But Not for Thee
Believe it or not, it’s common practice for universities to squelch the free speech of certain organizations that lean conservative, rather than those of other groups that might seem similarly inclusive or unique. There’s a similar case to the one at Wayne currently happening at Kennesaw State University (KSU) near Atlanta. University officials there have banished student speech they deem “controversial” to “speech zones” in an effort to quarantine or suppress certain messages. Alliance Defending Freedom (of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission-fame) has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the school’s speech zone policies and practices.
Zach Bohannon, a KSU student and ADF client, is majoring in business and serves as secretary of Ratio Christi, a registered student organization that seeks to “encourage and strengthen the faith of Christian students” through fellowship. This particular chapter seeks to bring the “Reason of Christ” and apologetics to key issues on campus. One of Zach’s duties is to apply for a “reservation request” when Ratio Christi sponsors an information table or activity.
While KSU touts “open, honest, and thoughtful intellectual inquiry” in its mission, its policies give administrators unlimited discretion to silence viewpoints that don’t track with their secular views. In 2016, Bohannon tried to reserve a “speech zone,” following campus protocol, to host a pro-life display. Instead of a green light, Ratio Christi was told if it removed its pro-life posters, they would be allowed in a more central part of the free speech zone, but since the group refused, it was bumped to a zone that fewer students would see. KSU enforced this double standard twice, with Ratio Christi, yet other groups, like the Kennesaw Pride Alliance, do not receive the same treatment or grief.
In the case at Wayne State, the university has allowed many of the 400 student groups to require not just leaders, but also their members, to support their mission. For example, the Secular Student Alliance can require its leaders to profess secular beliefs, the Students for Life group can require leaders to be pro-life, and Students for a Democratic Society can require its leaders to support its political view. Most people understand and accept these requirements make sense and serve the purposes of the group; they’re not discriminatory — they allow for unity and camaraderie, which is often part of the group’s purpose.
In a statement, Wayne University responded: “Wayne State University took action to decertify the student organization InterVarsity because it is in violation of the university’s non-discrimination policy, which is consistent with the United States Constitution. Every student organization that applies for organizational status must agree to this policy before being certified. Leaders of this group read and agreed to the policy during the application process.”
“Asking religious leaders to practice what they preach isn’t discrimination, it’s integrity. Targeting one Christian group that’s served the campus for over 75 years, while giving itself and dozens of larger groups a pass is truly discriminatory,” Windham reiterated, in a statement.
Universities Are the New Thought Police
This case is not the only one of its kind — by far. Free speech issues on college campuses like this have been cropping up steadily for the last ten years, typically targeting religious or pro-life groups. Alliance Defending Freedom started an organization in 2006 called the Center for Academic Freedom just to handle these types of cases. Since then, they’ve had nearly 400 victories — and litigated over a dozen or so last year alone. While that’s a bit of good news, the fact that there has been such a steady uptick in free speech cases on college campuses does not bode well for “real life,” as often university issues are about ten years ahead of the rest of the public square.
For example, just earlier this year, an Iowa federal court ruled to protect the religious freedom of Business Leaders In Christ, a student group that the University of Iowa had kicked off campus because of its rule that student leaders were required to hold to Biblical beliefs. Like many universities, the University of Iowa hosts over 500 diverse student groups, such as political groups, environmental groups, and religious groups. Many of these groups limit their leadership and even their membership to those who share their mission. Yet, the university discriminated against BLinC, saying the group cannot require its leaders to espouse religious beliefs.
Even though a court ruled in favor of Business Leaders in Christ, which Becket also represented, it’s discouraging to see how different religious student groups are treated, compared to all the other groups — and that often the only resource is to seek the help of legal counsel. While often these issues are resolved somewhat peacefully, out of court, some cases, like this one, only resolve in litigation.
It’s disheartening to see universities that are shaping the minds of our next generation participate in actively squelching the free speech of their students, and to discriminate against Christians and pro-life groups. If it’s any sign as to what’s ahead for debate and controversy in the public square, the right to free speech at the core of our nation will remain contested.