It’s been seven years since Vanderbilt University forced nearly all Christian student groups off campus by demanding they abandon faith-based leadership requirements. Despite fears the Vanderbilt decision would spur a rash of anti-religious policies at private universities, most chose not to follow the Nashville school’s lead.
But now the nation’s top Ivy League school has put its largest campus Christian group on probation, again raising worries about a widespread, faith-based purge.
Harvard administrators began investigating Harvard College Faith and Action (HCFA) last year after a Bible study leader reported the group pressured her to resign her leadership position over her decision to date another woman. Last month, the school announced it would place HCFA on probation for a year, giving the group time to prove its compliance with the school’s non-discrimination policies. According to the Harvard College Student Handbook, recognized campus student groups cannot discriminate on the basis of “sexual orientation.”
HCFA’s leaders and its parent ministry, Christian Union, insist the group already meets all the school’s requirements for maintaining its official recognized status. While administrators and the student union have framed the issue in terms of discrimination, HCFA notes the disagreement really falls to a difference in belief.
“We reject any notion that we discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in our fellowship,” HCFA co-presidents Scott Ely and Molly L. Richmond wrote in an email to The Harvard Crimson. “Broadly speaking, the student in this case was removed because of an irreconcilable theological disagreement pertaining to our character standards.”
In January, another campus Christian group won its fight against the University of Iowa over belief-based leadership requirements. The judge ruled the state school couldn’t prevent members of Business Leaders in Christ from selecting leaders who shared their faith, unless it applied the same standard to other groups, which it had not done. Applying the anti-bias policy unequally violated students’ religious liberty rights, the judge ruled.
But private universities like Harvard don’t have to respect constitutional protections, leaving Christian groups at the mercy of administrators who value inclusion and tolerance above all else. Kim Colby, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center of Law and Religious Freedom, said that’s not necessarily a bad place to be. The conversations sparked as a result of Vanderbilt’s decision to force Christian groups off campus helped show where zealous enforcement of anti-bias policies would logically lead.
“At many campuses they finally understood why applying a policy that in their minds prevents discrimination actually amounts to religious discrimination,” Colby said.
The Christian students at Harvard now have a prime opportunity to make the case for pluralism on campus. Does Harvard want to be known as a place where only some ideas are tolerated? Colby called religious groups the canary in the campus intolerance coal mine.
“In the last couple of years we’ve seen situations where it’s clear the climate on campus is very bad for free speech and for organizations that dissent from the campus culture,” she said. “That can be political, social, or religious. I think in that sense, a lot of people who might have said religious groups are just unwilling to acquiesce to reasonable requests realize that these aren’t actually reasonable requests. They’re actually trying to rid the campus of any views the administration doesn’t like.”