Campus Christian Groups and “Religious Discrimination”

13 Jun
June 13, 2014

The New York Times reported earlier this week on the ouster of Christian groups from Cal State, Vanderbilt and other schools because their leaders are required to affirm belief in Jesus’s resurrection and acknowledge him as their savior.  (Bowdoin College, which is featured most prominently, has since challenged the story).  The requirement that the Christian groups’ leaders be Christian violates the colleges’ policies banning groups that exclude any students from applying for leadership positions on religious or other grounds.

All-comers policies, which were upheld in a 2010 case involving the law school at Hastings, are in part a response to the Supreme Court’s shift (thanks in part to a series of classic articles by Michael McConnell) from strict separation of church and state in the 1960s and early 1970s to an emphasis on neutrality between religion and irreligion.  In effect, these policies say: “You want neutrality.  We’ll give you neutrality.  We won’t allow distinctions of any kind.”

Christian groups can of course simply forgo campus funding and take their functions off campus.  This isn’t a bad option, but it carries a cost both for the group and for the campus.  Campus life is a little less vibrant if groups with distinctive perspectives are effectively excluded.  Many of the students I talk to say one of their biggest frustrations is the inability to have open discussions about big, controversial issues on campus.  A rule that forces groups that wish to foster a distinctive mission off campus is not likely to foster a robust marketplace of ideas.

The other alternative is for groups to give in, and to adopt a policy permitting anyone to apply for leadership positions.  One problem with this is that it will often be at least a little disingenuous.  A Christian group doesn’t really want a leader who believes Christians are deluded, any more than Republican groups want straight ticket Democrats or Democratic groups a Republican.  The groups that are least well positioned to protect their mission are smaller and more vulnerable groups.  If the leaders are chosen by vote, unsympathetic outsiders might even show up when the time comes to select the next year’s leaders and proceed to “take over” the group.  This isn’t a genuine risk with most groups at most campuses, but it unfortunately could happen at some.