Federal Court Issues Commonsense Win for Campus Religious Group at Wayne State
April 15, 2021
The Daily Signal
by Sarah Parshall Perry
Campus groups, students, and professors who aren’t interested in kowtowing to groupthink on issues concerning their own faith and constitutionally guaranteed rights have had a run of good luck lately in federal courts.
Just a few days ago, in a lengthy opinion, Judge Robert Cleland of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted partial summary judgment for the Christian group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, finding that Wayne State University discriminated against it when it kicked it off campus for requiring its leaders to be… Christians. (*clutches pearls!*)
In so doing, the court joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit and the Supreme Court in protecting constitutional freedoms within an academic context. Those courts have moved to protect free speech and religious liberty while also lowering the bar for damages, allowing the suit to be brought on the basis of a violated constitutional right.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA is a religious organization that conducts outreach and religious ministry on more than 600 college campuses across the country. The group imposes certain faith-based limitations on which students can become leaders of their campus groups in the same way that other student groups on campuses nationwide impose leadership requirements—religious or not.
Up until 2017, InterVarsity was a recognized student organization at Wayne State University, joining the ranks of other recognized student organizations like fraternities, sororities, sports teams, political organizations, and activist groups. It enjoyed all the benefits of being so, including the ability to reserve free or reduced-price meeting spaces, access to student recruitment tools, the ability to apply for school funds, the use of online school organizing platforms, and more.
Like many colleges and universities, Wayne State has a nondiscrimination policy. Among other applications, the policy determined whether a group’s leadership and membership criteria were discriminatory. The policy reads:
[Wayne State] embraces all persons regardless of race, color, sex (including gender identity), national origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, familial status, marital status, height, weight, disability, or veteran status and expressly forbids sexual harassment and discrimination in hiring, terms of employment, tenure, promotion, placement and discharge of employees, admission, training and treatment of students, extracurricular activities, the use of University services, facilities, and the awarding of contracts.
InterVarsity’s constitution allows all students to join the group as members, but leadership positions are limited to those who agree with its statement of faith. In March 2017, InterVarsity submitted this constitution (not materially different from previous iterations, or different than ones used at other public universities) to campus leadership at Wayne State, as required.
However, on Sept. 14, 2017, the chapter president submitted a renewed recognized student organization application for that school year. And the next day, one of the school administrators told the group’s president that InterVarsity’s officer requirements violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy.
The next month, Wayne State revoked its recognition of InterVarsity as a recognized student organization, even though secular groups both during and after InterVarsity’s deregistration were allowed to limit membership and leadership based on agreement with their mission principles.