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BRUNSWICK, Maine—In September students at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, walked and biked past groves of evergreen trees and the Mr. Suds laundromat to a Bible study meeting in a Victorian house on the edge of campus. This was the first meeting of the newly named Christian Fellowship at Bowdoin College, which for the past 40 years had gone by the name Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.
That slight change in word order signifies a big change in the InterVarsity chapter’s status: It is no longer a recognized student group. Last year, Bowdoin College changed its rules to forbid student groups from discriminating on the basis of religion in their membership and leadership.
Rob Gregory, a longtime lawyer in Maine and the volunteer adviser to the Christian Fellowship, saw the derecognition as “merely a change of venue as far as we’re concerned. It’s not the end of the world.” He’s fine with the change because he doesn’t want campus ministries to rely on the resources offered by colleges: “I’m happy to go across the street. I’m happy to go to the basement. Christians have been sharing this message in sewers for hundreds of years.”
The Christian Fellowship is a small group at a small college, but other private colleges have adopted “all comers” policies requiring anyone regardless of faith to be eligible for leadership of student groups. Private colleges such as Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and Rollins College in Florida have instituted similar policies, and now some public colleges, including all 19 campuses of the California State University (CSU) system, are joining in.
The policies are challenging Christian groups financially and operationally, with meeting space and publicity harder to come by. Some have closed their doors. Others are meeting in cafeterias or in parks. InterVarsity’s American staff is now consulting with its international campus ministries in countries hostile to Christianity, like Egypt, to see how they work. Students are learning a valuable lesson: Even if they don’t feel persecuted, they understand that their faith can be costly.
Since the conflict with Bowdoin began last school year, “we’ve gotten bigger, strangely,” said June Woo, 20, a junior at Bowdoin and one of the chapter’s student leaders. That echoes what InterVarsity says is happening across the country. During the last school year, InterVarsity recorded the highest number of student participants in its history–40,299–and said the number of new Christians reported by chapter leaders, 3,517, was double what it was a decade ago. Two out of five regular InterVarsity participants are members of ethnic minorities.
InterVarsity chapters are developing creative ways to operate in this new environment. One college chapter meets unofficially in the cafeteria: “We’re in the most visible place in the school,” the chapter’s leader said. (We are not naming the school so as not to jeopardize the group’s meetings.)
In California, 23 InterVarsity chapters on 19 state university campuses lost their status. As each university begins implementing the policy, more denials to religious groups are likely: CSU schools have recently revoked recognition for a chapter of Chi Alpha Campus Ministries and a chapter of Athletes in Action, a Cru affiliate. In a large system like CSU, schools enforce the policies unevenly. On some campuses, InterVarsity chapters are still renting space on campus; but others are meeting off campus, and the chapter at CSU-East Bay held its first group meeting outdoors.
But loss of access has killed other groups. In 2010 the Supreme Court set the stage for California when it ruled as constitutional the all-comers policy at the University of California Hastings Law School. The ruling, although narrow, emboldened some state university administrators. The Christian Legal Society chapter at the center of the case did not survive the ruling: The court case made the group unpopular, and when the group lost campus access, students quit coming altogether.
At some schools students are forming their own Christian groups independent of national ministries, and signing whatever forms they have to sign. Students formed Vanderbilt Christian Legal Fellowship at Vanderbilt University after the Christian Legal Society lost its recognition.
Kim Colby, counsel for the Christian Legal Society, a close campus ally of InterVarsity, has worked on campus access issues for more than 30 years. She doesn’t want to give in: “Do we want to live in a country where religious groups choosing their leaders is seen as discrimination?”
Colby is concerned about the use of nondiscrimination policies to exclude religious groups in other contexts and points to a 2nd Circuit Court majority opinion that ruled against churches wanting to meet in public schools on Sundays. One judge noted in a footnote that cities could use nondiscrimination policies to keep churches out of the public school buildings.
Despite the threat, the Christian Fellowship at Bowdoin, and most campus ministries these days, are not taking a litigious approach. “Who sues their mission field?” asked Greg Jao, InterVarsity’s field director for New England and the ministry’s point person on campus access issues. Gregory, the lawyer and adviser at Bowdoin, said the Christian Fellowship declined offers of support for a legal challenge to the school’s policy.
Although InterVarsity has chosen not to respond to the new policies through the courts, Jao regularly talks with school administrators about the policies. Some are openly hostile to Christian groups while others don’t understand why religious groups would object to a policy seemingly based on tolerance. Jao remembers telling an administrator, “That’s why nondiscrimination policies were created: to protect people like us from people like you who think we don’t make sense.”
Jao recently met in Washington, D.C., with a lobbyist representing the California state system. He posed a hypothetical about women survivors of sexual violence forming a group and wanting to exclude men from the meetings. Would that be allowed? he asked the lobbyist. The lobbyist said no. “It’s taking a very good nondiscrimination policy and taking it one step beyond the absurd,” said Jao.
InterVarsity has been able to resolve several powder-keg situations, with universities changing their nondiscrimination policies to create exemptions for groups selecting religious leaders. The University of Michigan derecognized an InterVarsity chapter in 2012; but InterVarsity leaders met with administrators, and in 2013 the school added a religious exemption to its nondiscrimination policy and re-recognized the group.
InterVarsity and CLS are currently working to resolve amicably another situation where a school rejected a group’s application. The groups say they try to keep such negotiations private so universities don’t feel as if they’re in a power struggle.
When the groups can’t resolve the issue amicably, ministries pay the price—but the price varies from campus to campus. Some schools allow unofficial groups to advertise or meet on campus, even if they don’t get student group funding. Others forbid all of those things. Some schools have four or five different categories of student groups, with different campus privileges for different categories.
Just as campuses are different, so are student groups. Some ministries, like CLS, readily sign certain nondiscrimination forms but attach a statement of their faith-based leadership requirements and leave it to the school to approve the application or not.
InterVarsity didn’t sign the form at Vanderbilt and lost its official status in 2012; but since the chapter served graduate students, a demographic that already lives most of life off campus, the derecognition did less harm than it would for an undergraduate ministry.
Reformed University Fellowship (under the Presbyterian Church in America) signed the form, saying that it trusted Vanderbilt to apply the policy in a way that would not hinder RUF’s work or prohibit it from having gospel-teaching leaders: “If the charge of naiveté is laid at our feet, we reply that our aim is to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
When Bowdoin College—a school founded to train Protestant ministers—instituted its new policies, Rob Gregory and his wife Sim refused to sign the new volunteer nondiscrimination policy, but students weren’t immediately convinced. The group had long welcomed anyone, regardless of religion, to join the group. But it had also limited leadership to those who adhere to Christian doctrine.
Students recalled having “endless” debates last semester about whether to agree to the nondiscrimination policy–after all, it seemed unlikely that some hostile party would invade the group. The Catholic Student Union signed the policy and remained on campus. But the more the InterVarsity students discussed the importance of leaders who believe in the Bible, the more they saw the policy as “a real threat.” They didn’t want to take the risk of losing the group, and the Gregorys didn’t want young Christians, already in a hostile environment with very few churches, to feel they could compromise their beliefs when convenient.
Exiled from campus, the Christian Fellowship had to find a new meeting place. For years a Baptist church had offered InterVarsity use of a Victorian house on an acre of land at the edge of campus. When the ministry lost its official status, it accepted the church’s offer. Donors bought the house from the church, and over the summer the Gregorys, students, and volunteers renovated it in time for the start of the school year.
At the first meeting in September, the home still smelled of fresh paint. A stove sat in the middle of the kitchen waiting for a connection. Students, many of them freshmen and sophomores, piled into the house carrying to-go dinners from campus. They sang songs, took turns reading Scripture, and began a year-long study on creation.
Since the group can no longer advertise through official school channels, many of the freshmen learned about the Christian Fellowship through Facebook or the bags of homemade cookies, which the group has for years given to all freshmen. Plain old word-of-mouth works too: A freshman brought one of her buddies from the track team with her. Members of a local church attended by many of the students help take care of the house.
The Christian students at Bowdoin don’t use the word persecution to describe their situation, but they do face challenges. The night of the opening Bible study, students volunteered to go over to the school’s activities fair being held the same evening. That’s where official student groups set up booths and recruit members. The Christian students decided they could at least talk to students at the fair even without a booth.
The fair was loud and teeming with students huddled around tables sponsored by the Salsa Club, Radical Activism Against Capitalism, and Amnesty International. A foodie club offered snacks, and other clubs plied students with candy bars.
Woo and sophomore Jasmine Autrie walked to a corner of the room, prayed, and then held up an improvised sign. A dean approached and told Woo and Autrie that the event was only for chartered groups, so the two left. Later, school spokesman Scott Hood said the dean had not kicked the students out. “The discussion was informational, not at all confrontational,” he said in an email. “No action was taken to remove them–the students simply chose to leave on their own.” The students themselves, in any case, did not feel welcome to stay.
The school has the same attitude about its new policy, insisting it has done nothing unwelcoming toward the Christian group. “They have chosen to not seek recognition by the college, and we respect their right to operate off campus,” Hood said.
But before Woo and Autrie left the fair, they had signed up two students.