Christian Wolverines get special exception

Religious Liberty
by Leigh Jones
Posted 2/06/13, 04:15 pm

University of Michigan officials are rethinking their decision to kick a chapter of college ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship off campus.

After telling the group’s leaders last week they would lose their status as an official student organization, administrators changed course on Monday and approved their application for recognition.

But administrators only offered the approval as an exception to the school’s nondiscrimination policy and stressed the Asian Christian Fellowship (ACF) would not be covered by the policy against any future claims of discrimination.

InterVarsity leaders are trying to figure out what that means, said Greg Jao, the organization’s national field director.

“We’re very thankful that they’re giving us the exception,” he said. “But we would love for them to go further and make it part of their policy.”

Like almost all public colleges, the University of Michigan has a nondiscrimination policy that forbids officially recognized student groups from refusing membership to anyone based on gender, race, and other factors, including sexual orientation.

All InterVarsity chapters, including eight groups at the University of Michigan, have open membership policies but require leaders to profess a statement of faith that includes biblically orthodox beliefs about sexuality. The school’s new opposition to the group’s constitution came as a surprise because administrators have approved the same document for years, Jao said. ACF has had a chapter at the school since the mid 1990s. But in September, ACF’s leaders filed their registration documents late, prompting administrators to review the application more carefully.

Initially, administrators told group leaders they would have to revise their constitution to win approval. On Thursday, ACF announced the school intended to kick the club off campus. A school spokeswoman denied those claims on Friday and said administrators wanted to work to keep the group on campus. On Monday, ACF leaders received an email notifying them the group’s constitution was approved.

“We value the existence of the Asian InterVarsity Christian Fellowship,” school spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham told The Michigan Daily on Friday. “Their existence and their voices add significantly to our academic community and support those students who find solace, camaraderie, and guidance in their presence.”

Whether the school values the group enough to allow it to continue operating freely remains to be seen.

InterVarsity has faced dozens of challenges to its leadership requirements in recent years. Although it lost its fight to stay on campus at Vanderbilt University, along with 14 other Christian groups, the campus ministry has had more success at public schools, where administrators still fear a lengthy court challenge over policy changes.

In December, University of Maryland, College Park administrators told leaders of Graduate Christian Fellowship they would not approve the group’s constitution. But after InterVarsity representatives pointed out the school’s nondiscrimination policy included an exception for religious groups, the school backed down.

In August, the student judiciary at the State University of New York at Buffalo reversed the Student Government Association’s decision to revoke InterVarsity’s recognition. Student leaders targeted the group when they learned its treasurer stepped down after announcing he planned to live an openly gay lifestyle. School officials are working on a new system for dealing with student groups. Jao hopes it will include a provision allowing religious groups to organize and operate based on their beliefs.

This month’s threat of derecognition is not the first time InterVarsity has faced a challenge at the University of Michigan. In 2006, the group successfully persuaded school officials to give religious groups an exemption to the nondiscrimination policy. At the time, the school’s lawyers said religious groups should be allowed to make sure members were committed to their mission.

"It's not necessarily discrimination based on their religious status," Donica Varner, a University assistant general counsel, told The Michigan Daily. "But it is expecting members to understand what this group is about and agreeing to be about the same thing."

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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