Wayne State University has joined the wave of colleges trying to dictate which students can serve as leaders of campus clubs and ministries.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an international student ministry that has had a chapter at Wayne State for 75 years, sued the Detroit school last year for denying its routine application for official status because of a university policy that requires student organizations to open up their leadership roles to everyone on campus—even those who oppose a group’s stated mission or beliefs. The school abruptly revoked InterVarsity’s recognition as a student group in 2017 when then–chapter President Christina Garza applied for renewal. University officials told Garza that the chapter’s constitution violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy by requiring its leaders to be Christians. In one of its court filings, Wayne State railed against InterVarsity’s “decision to make second-class citizens of students who refuse to accept their religious pledge.”
InterVarsity contended that the university relegated it to second-class status. Wayne State has not applied the policy to other student groups that limit who can hold leadership roles. Fraternities and sororities limit their membership by sex, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association limits its membership to Muslims, and even the Quidditch Club, based on a fictional game from Harry Potter, can select leaders who affirm its stated mission.
InterVarsity at Wayne State is feeling a ripple effect of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. In a 5-4 ruling, the court determined that public universities could—but were not obligated to—require all student groups to admit members and leaders without regard to their beliefs. Emboldened by Martinez, some universities—even those that didn’t have “all-comers” policies—began purging campuses of Christian student groups.
“Since Martinez, universities have felt like they had the right to just go around excluding student religious groups, but it turns out not to be the case,” Becket Fund counsel Lori Windham, who represents InterVarsity at Wayne State, told me. “The reality is that most schools have organizations that exclude some students for a host of reasons, including sex and political views.” She knows of none who, in practice, have an “all-comers” policy.
While many universities have threatened to deny recognition to Christian student groups, Windham explained that most back down once lawyers get involved. Just this past May, leaders at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs settled a lawsuit brought by Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys on behalf of Ratio Christi, a Christian apologetics organization, when the university declined to grant it registered status. The university modified its policies to ensure that a student club may require its leadership to promote the purposes of the club and hold beliefs consistent with the group’s mission.
Other universities have been more aggressive. Becket sued the University of Iowa after it kicked Business Leaders for Christ off campus for allegedly violating the school’s nondiscrimination policy. A court ordered the university to allow the group to remain on campus, but the university dug in, not only appealing the case but purging the campus of nearly 40 religious groups, including InterVarsity. The groups were temporarily reinstated when Becket sued again, but the litigation is not over.
“InterVarsity seeks to serve Wayne State University, its students and faculty, and the local community,” Greg Jao, director of external relations at InterVarsity, said in a statement. “The policy should protect, rather than penalize, religious groups that seek to retain their religious identity on campus.”
Wayne State student and InterVarsity member Deaunai Montgomery agrees. “As a Christian, we need our leaders to sincerely believe that what they teach us about Jesus is true,” she told Fox News after the court hearing. “To be clear, we want everyone to feel welcome to attend our group, but why should our Bible studies, prayer, and worship be led by someone who doesn’t believe those things?”