It happened last year at Vanderbilt University. Bowdoin College followed suit this summer. And now Cal State University and its 23 campuses have de-recognized Christian organizations.
Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students, has shunned InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical Christian group with 860 chapters in the United States. At Vanderbilt, more than a dozen religious groups, including evangelicals and Catholics alike, lost their official standing with the university. Small Bowdoin College (located in Maine) has de-recognized its lone Christian organization.
The consequences for evangelical groups that lose their official standing with a university vary by institution. Students are still allowed to meet informally on campus. However, in most cases they lose access to free or low-cost university space for official meetings and, more importantly, they are denied access to standard on-campus recruiting tools like activities fairs and bulletin boards. Their non-student leaders lose security access to the campus and the organizations can no longer use the universities’ names in any way. In some ways, losing official standing on campus is like a death sentence.
These three universities only represent the tip of the iceberg so far as this issue is concerned. At the heart of the matter is the tension between religious expression and anti-discrimination laws. Mike Uhlencamp, director of public affairs for the California State University system said, “For an organization to be recognized, they must sign a general nondiscrimination policy. We have engaged with (InterVarsity) for the better part of a year and informed them they would have to sign a general nondiscrimination statement. They have not.”
While signing a general nondiscrimination policy may sound like a great idea, it ultimately unravels the fabric of what it means to be a Christian organization. Christianity, at its core, is a creedal belief system. Even conservative Christians who reject the Creeds of the early church would recognize the Bible as their creed. Simply put, Christianity is a belief system. That belief system is built upon shared convictions. Those convictions must, on at least a basic level, be articulated to be shared. What colleges and universities are asking Christian organizations to do is to sign a statement allowing anyone, including those who deny their core beliefs, to be eligible for both participants and leadership.
From the perspective of the Christian organizations’ standpoint, the issue doesn’t so much revolve around the idea of divergent beliefs among participants. As the New York Times reported, “The evangelical groups say they . . . welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith – in most cases an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.” Zackary Shur, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College and the former leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship makes the point clearly when he says, “It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard.”
Can you feel the tension between religious expression and the anti-discrimination spirit of the age? Essentially, those in decision-making positions have deemed that, in order for a Christian organization to be both compliant with anti-discrimination laws and in good standing with the university, it must cease to uphold the convictions that make it a Christian organization. The only way for Christian organizations to have a future is to cease to be Christian organizations. Wow.
Alec Hill, president of InterVaristy has responded well: “It’s absurd. The genius of American culture is that we allow voluntary, self-identified organizations to form, and that’s what our student groups are.”
Tish Harrison Warren was the head of InterVarsity at Vanderbilt University. She was shocked to find that her organization was placed on probation last year. She met privately with campus administrators seeking an amicable solution. Her fantastic article, The Wrong Kind of Christian which ran on August 27, 2014 in Christianity Today is eye-opening. She writes,
The word discrimination began to be used – a lot – specifically in regard to creedal requirements. It was lobbed like a grenade to end all argument. Administrators compared Christian students to 1960s segregationists. I once mustered courage to ask them if they truly thought it was fair to equate racial prejudice with asking Bible study leaders to affirm the Resurrection. The vice chancellor replied, “Creedal discrimination is still discrimination.”
Universities have been thought of as places of free thought, where students come to compare ideas and to seek out truth. Colleges are supposed to be places where young people discover learning and open themselves up to new ideas. All ideas are welcome. Except Christianity.