Challenged Universities: Can't Christians Be Christian

Iona Institute's picture

Every so often, you'll hear about some kind of policy move so utterly ridiculous that it's a wonder its advocates don't burst out laughing.

The recent decision by the Californian State University system (CSU) is such a move. What did they decide? To remove recognition from the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship because they required their leaders to be Christian.

This (naturally) violated the CSU's new policy on inclusion, which states:

Official recognition of student organizations that fail to abide by the open membership policy or that discriminate on the basis of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability shall be withdrawn.

The CSU generously gave religious organisations a one-year exemption from the rule, but when that ran out, recognition was duly withdrawn, and religious groups that didn't adapt to the new rules couldn't operate as official student societies.

Look, I'm not one for snarking about sincerely held views, but shouldn't everyone be able to agree that this is insane? Preventing discrimination on religious grounds is great, but not when the organisation itself exists to promote a particular religion. This isn't even a greyish area, like a school or a hospital, where a particular ethos coexists with other functions. Intervarsity Christian Fellowship describes itself as a ministry.

Imagine a college feminist organisation allowing a male chauvanist to lead it. Imagine Young Fine Gael being forced to consider Sinn Fein supporters for leadership positions. Imagine the Campus Society for the Appreciation of Ayn Rand (LINK) being mandated to consider appointing a Marxist as Public Relations Officer. This isn't just about administrative positions, either - it's every single leadership position in the organisation.

Just to be extra, extra clear, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship allows anyone, of any race (the organisation says LINK that around 70 of students involved with the ministry in California are members of an ethnic minority), gender, sexual orientation, or even belief system to participate in its activities. All they wanted was to have their leaders, the people actually running the organisation, be required to adhere to their evangelical Christian values.

That, apparently, was too much for the CSU, as it's been too much for other universities around the US. Never mind that a perfectly sane, sensible accomodation was reached by the Ohio State University, which amended its policy to 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.

I leave you with the words of Tish Warren, a member of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt University.

I thought I was the right kind of evangelical.

I'm not a fundamentalist. My friends and I enjoy art, alcohol, and cultural engagement.
We avoid spiritual clichés and buzzwords. We value authenticity, study, racial reconciliation, and social and environmental justice.

Being a Christian made me somewhat weird in my urban, progressive context, but despite some clear differences, I held a lot in common with unbelieving friends. We could disagree about truth, spirituality, and morality, and remain on the best of terms. The failures of the church often made me more uncomfortable than those in the broader culture.

Then, two years ago, the student organization I worked for at Vanderbilt University got kicked off campus for being the wrong kind of Christians.


What began as a concern about sexuality and pluralism quickly became a conversation about whether robustly religious communities would be allowed on campus. In effect, the new policy privileged certain belief groups and forbade all others. Religious organizations were welcome as long as they were malleable: as long as their leaders didn't need to profess anything in particular; as long as they could be governed by sheer democracy and adjust to popular mores or trends; as long as they didn't prioritize theological stability.

Dicrimination on the ground of religion is bad, right? Isn't that how all this started?

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