The Choice

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The facts: From California to Maine, in small private colleges and massive public universities, some Christian ministries are losing their official campus status and all the perks that come with it.

The cause: University officials insist collegiate groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) must sign nondiscrimination agreements letting non-Christians hold leadership positions. When student leaders and advisors have refused, the backlash has been swift: Dozens of clubs around the nation, have been forced off campus, forfeiting access to funding, advertising and low-cost campus meeting spaces.

The reaction: Affected students, like June Woo from Bowdoin College in Maine, feel their school administrators will actively allow any students' beliefs—except Christians'.

"I'm disappointed. I had hoped they would allow for diversity of thought and belief," Woo, 20, tells Citizen. "I think Bowdoin values my beliefs from an intellectual standpoint, but does not understand my beliefs in Christianity on a more personal level."

Yet there is a positive result coming out of the discrimination: Christian students are becoming bolder in their discipleship, more knowledgeable in doctrinal foundations, clearer in their beliefs and behaviors and more passionate about reaching their campuses with God's love.

Case of Substance

For decades, universities have had rules governing the clubs that receive campus recognition, saying they must allow all kinds of students to be able to join the clubs and become leaders. But for as long as those rules have existed, there have also been exemptions: For example, gender-based groups like fraternities and sororities may restrict leadership positions to men or women. The reasoning: A club designed for certain people should be run by those people.

Some colleges—including the University of Florida, the University of Houston, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas—do not require religious groups to adhere to those nondiscrimination policies. At those schools, a Muslim ministry might welcome students from any or no religious background to participate in meetings and events—but the group still can require its leaders to follow Muslim tenets.

In 2010, however, those allowances came under fire in the U.S. Supreme Court case Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that administrators at the University of California Hastings School of Law had the right to revoke campus recognition for the Christian Legal Society (CLS). The ministry's charter required its leaders to sign a statement of faith as well as follow basic Christian morals such as sexual abstinence outside of marriage, including a rule forbidding "unrepentant homosexual conduct."

That requirement, in the Court's eyes, constituted discrimination against those who may disagree with CLS's values but who still wanted to lead the group.

"A vibrant dialogue is not possible if students wall themselves off from opposing points of view," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in a concurring opinion. And while Justice John Paul Stevens insisted that organizations of all stripes must be allowed to exist, a college "need not subsidize them, give them its official imprimatur or grant them equal access to law school facilities."

The case acted as a tipping point. Mary Poplin, author of Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews (IVP Books, 2014) says since that decision, more than 40 American colleges, both public and private, have either withdrawn official recognition of Christian ministries or encouraged them to drop the offending sections of their constitutions. Some groups have acquiesced to these "all-comers" policies, while others, like the IVCF-affiliated Bowdoin Christian Fellowship at Bowdoin, have elected to leave campus rather than modify their leadership requirements.


Robert and Sim Gregory have been advisors and IVCF volunteers for eight years. When Bowdoin administrators told the group last year to accept its new non-discrimination policy, the husband-and-wife team instead offered a Religious Reservation of Rights—a document asking Bowdoin "to recognize that the campus minister answers to a higher authority in Christian ministry, and therefore any conflict between the college and the requirements of the Gospel would be resolved in favor of the right to hold, teach, and practice the sincerely held Christian beliefs."

Bowdoin refused.

The Christian Fellowship considered its options: Replace the Gregorys and use the all-comers policy, thereby retaining official recognition, or refuse and relinquish the benefits of association. The students decided to maintain their constitution and follow the Gregorys off campus.

Ryan Ward, a sophomore from Brewer, Maine, was one of them. "(Our leaders) don't claim to be perfect, but we want others to see the kind of work God has done in our lives," he tells Citizen. "In order to do this, we have to have leaders who are dedicated to centering their lives around the Gospel's transformative power."

That's an action Robert Gregory supports. Christians should focus not on what they are missing, he says, but Who they are serving.

"With the law now favoring those who dislike narrow gates, campus ministers must get ready to take their eyes off the prize of campus rooms, campus vans, campus billboards and campus funding opportunities for Christian activities," he wrote in a June 26 First Things commentary. "We have become far too enamored of these privileges at the cost of losing focus on the access that matters—to the Kingdom through a narrow door. … We will conduct campus ministry without a campus, and we can and must do so because of the nature of the Kingdom that we proclaim. It is the way that Jesus traveled."

Still, student leaders like Ward and Woo wonder how moving elsewhere will affect the 25-person group. Will it reduce their numbers? Their campus exposure?

"The Christian Fellowship is entering a new phase, which I view with both trepidation and hope," Ward says. "I think a new door is opening for us to proclaim the Gospel in a different way than we are accustomed to."

From Honorable Aims

So where does the desire to demote previously welcomed clubs originate? Greg Jao, national field director for the Northeast Cluster of IVCF, which includes Bowdoin, believes it comes from good—but misguided—intentions.

"I don't think the majority of these administrations are motivated by animosity," he tells Citizen. "Many long for universities to be safe, inclusive environments. We want that too, but they've taken good policies to their illogical extreme."

Dr. Carol M. Swain, a political science and law professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, agrees. As faculty adviser for Vanderbilt's CLS, she watched her ministry and several other Christian groups on campus go through a similar process as that of Bowdoin—warnings from the administration, attempts to compromise, complete rejection and eventual removal as official university organizations.

That began in spring 2011. In 2012, Vandy Catholic, a student group with more than 500 members, left campus and became University Catholic, since they could no longer use the school's name. The same year, 11 ministries (a group which has since grown to 14) banded together informally as Vanderbilt Solidarity, refusing to sign the all-comers policy. As a result, they all received the boot.

"The groups still exist, but they're not nearly as strong as they used to be," Swain tells Citizen. "It's been harmful to many students that they cannot openly organize or see membership grow. Now the message you get from the university is that if you're a conservative Christian, then maybe you're a hatemonger or a Neanderthal. It's very confusing for students."

The Tennessee school also went beyond the Hastings precedent, she writes in an as-yet unpublished article, by imposing a policy "even more extreme than the policy upheld in Martinez." Vanderbilt's all-comers policy has no provision to remove an elected club leader who is actively undermining the group's core values—something the Martinez decision never mandated or addressed as a possibility.

Beth Fortune, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor for public affairs, told Christianity Today in 2012 that Vanderbilt's policy does not target specific groups.

"Belief-based or status-based requirements are inconsistent with our nondiscrimination policy," she said.

It's a common refrain among university staff. California State University Director of Public Affairs Michael Uhlenkamp tells Citizen that while religious ministries' leaders are "gaining skills and knowledge and learning problem-solving," they still "can't discriminate against anyone. Every single group has to allow those who are interested a hand in that group."

Marketplace of Ideas

Every school in the California State University system—the largest in the country, with almost 450,000 students spread across 23 campuses—had to revise its bylaws to meet the updated non-discrimination requirements. On Sept. 22, Cal State "de-recognized" IVCF systemwide. "We have engaged (them) for the better part of a year and informed them they would have to sign a general nondiscrimination statement," says Uhlenkamp. "They have not."

Because of the size of the Cal State system, culture-watchers like David Hacker, senior legal counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, are paying particular attention to its aftershocks. Will all public universities in California soon follow suit?

"Colleges and universities are the marketplace of ideas," he tells Citizen. "They are and should be the epicenter of free speech—places that encourage the free exchange of ideas and independent student leadership, not shut them down."

Yet Swain believes the ministries still have a chance, if "reasonable people" will take action.

"I believe that we as Christians often give up too soon," she says. "A great injustice has been done, and we shouldn't pretend it's 'business as usual' until the groups are restored to campus."

Despite the negative forecast, Jao sees Christ's hand in every cast-out group.

"Are (our universities) any more wrong-headed, any more misguided than any other culture?" he asks. "I'm not dismayed, because this is what I expect of a mission field. The church's response should be to get on our knees, pray and send our students to be salt and light. God is still going to have a witness in our universities."

Sidebar: The Beginning of All-Comers

In 2004, the Christian Legal Society (CLS) became the only student group ever denied Registered Student Organization status at Hastings School of Law at the University of California-San Francisco.  The denial came when Hastings discovered the ministry's leaders had to agree to a statement which read:

I believe in: The Bible as the inspired word of God; The Deity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, God's son; The vicarious death of Jesus Christ for our sins; His bodily resurrection and His personal return; The presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the work of regeneration; [and] Jesus Christ, God's son, is Lord of my life.

This belief-based requirement for leadership participation led Hastings to reason that CLS was violating the religion and "sexual orientation" provisions of its non-discrimination policy.

CLS sued in response, noting that La Raza, a student club for Hispanics which required its members and leaders to be Hispanic, was considered to be in good standing by the school. According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, CLS also drew upon former Supreme Court decisions establishing that "student groups, including religious groups, have free speech and association rights to university recognition; student activity fees must be allocated in a viewpoint-neutral manner; and expressive associations have a First Amendment right to require their leaders and members to agree with the groups' missions and messages."

In April 2006, a federal court effectively erased the organization's hopes of a full trial.  CLS filed an appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the following month.

But in March 2009, the 9th Circuit upheld CLS's ouster. CLS then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where arguments took place in April 2010.

On June 28, 2010, the Court ruled 5-4 against CLS. "A public college does not violate the First Amendment by refusing to officially recognize a student organization unless it allows all students to join the group," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion, "even if that all-comers policy requires a religious organization to admit gay students who do not adhere to the group's core beliefs."

Still the outcome gave several justices pause, including dissenting Justice Samuel Alito. "Brushing aside inconvenient precedent," he wrote, "the Court arms public educational institutions with a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups."

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Citizen magazine.

Copyright © 2014 Crystal Kupper. All rights reserved.