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Michigan University football stadium

(Photo credit: About.com)

By Jeff Gissing (@JeffGissing)

The university—at its best—is a marketplace of ideas. It is a forum for the explanation and examination of various ways of understanding self, others, and the world in which we live. The university provides a context in which a wide variety of views can come into conversation and—in the end—produce a strong learning community.

In order for this forum to function to its fullest, there must be true diversity. This can only happen when individuals and groups are free to maintain those beliefs that are particular to them, the very thing that makes them diverse.

This is a principled pluralism, a pluralism that respects all views and permits individual and groups the freedom to delineate and differentiate themselves from others with whom they disagree. This sort of pluralism is being threatened on American university campuses today.

With increasing frequency, non-discrimination policies at both state and private universities are being applied to religious student organizations in such a way as to preclude those ministries from using religious criteria in the selection of officers and leaders. In the attempt to safeguard pluralism, it seems, universities are actually sacrificing it.

In December 2012, the University of Michigan de-recognized Asian InterVarsity because it claimed the student organization’s constitution was at odds with the university’s non-discrimination policy. Asian InterVarsity is an ethnic-specific ministry of nationwide evangelical ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, which is active on over 500 campuses.

As a campus ministry, InterVarsity requires its student leaders to affirm InterVarsity’s Doctrinal Basis, a brief statement containing the organization’s religious beliefs. It has followed this practice since its first chapter was constituted in 1941, ironically, at the University of Michigan.

It has long been recognized that in order to fulfill their purpose, religious organizations must be able to select leaders who share their essential beliefs. In this way they are distinct from civic, non-religious organizations.  As Justice Samuel Alito noted in his concurring opinion in Hosannah-Tabor:

“The First Amendment protects the freedom of religious groups to engage in certain key religious activities, including the conducting of worship services and other religious ceremonies and rituals, as well as the critical process of communicating the faith. Accordingly, religious groups must be free to choose the personnel who are essential to the performance of these functions.”     

This isn’t the first time an InterVarsity chapter has been threatened with recognition because it, as a religious organization, requires certain beliefs of its leaders. Within the last ten years, instances of universities re-recognizing religious organizations have been on the increase. During this period there have been challenges to InterVarsity’s ability to use religious criteria to select its student leaders at Rutgers, the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Georgetown, Tufts, SUNY-Buffalo, and Vanderbilt.

Even as I am writing I have learned that Cal State Fresno has de-recognized its InterVarsity chapter for the same reason. This doesn’t even factor in cases in which other Christian organizations like Christian Legal Society have been removed from campus.

What once may have been explainable as due to issues with a specific campus, a problematic policy, an administrator, or an individual chapter, now seem to be coalescing into a clear trend.

The most egregious of these incidents is the unresolved de-recognition of InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt University. In early 2012, the university decided that the affirmation of a creed in order to be in leadership of a religious student group constituted discrimination. Their proposed alternative, any student who wished must be able to place his name into consideration for office. They called it an “all-comers policy.”

As a result fourteen student groups—including InterVarsity, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Christian Legal Society, and Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi—would be compelled to alter their constitutions to remove the belief requirement and sign the university non-discrimination. When they would not comply with the policy, they lost their recognized status which brings with it access to funding from student activity fees, the ability to reserve meeting space, the ability to advertise on campus, and the chance to have events on the student calendar.

What is at play is an invidious narrowing of the notion of pluralism. Pluralism means the presence of a diversity of views and beliefs. Of necessity, many of these views will be mutually exclusive. Yet, the ideal of pluralism is that through the encounter of one idea or school of thought with another, both are enriched. This enrichment doesn’t necessarily mean a change from one belief to another. It very often does mean that an idea or belief is held with more integrity and authenticity for its having been challenged.

In the scenarios I’ve described above, such an exchange is impossible. The non-discrimination policies—as applied—necessitate a sort of monochromatic belief in difference as the only, or at least the prime, good. This stands in stark contrast with the notion, alluded to in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, that the purpose of the state is to guarantee that religious groups are to be given latitude to freely exercise their religion. The same principle holds on our campuses. The university promotes the common good when it creates latitude for a diversity of student organizations to exist, each of which is guaranteed to the ability to carry out its mission and select its leaders in line with its deeply cherished beliefs.

Thankfully the University of Michigan has reversed its decision in the case of Asian InterVarsity. The university has done the right thing and served the common good of the campus community. Thankfully the chapter is now free to exercise its religion with integrity and without theological interference from university administrators. Unfortunately, things remain unchanged at Vanderbilt.