Faith group regains campus status after suing college

by Diana Chandler, posted Friday, March 09, 2018 (3 months ago)

DETROIT (BP) -- A Christian student group dispelled from a public university for requiring chapter leaders to be Christian has been readmitted. But attorneys say the school's change of heart is hardly adequate.

A recent InterVarsity Christian Fellowship fair at Wayne State University, which had challenged InterVarsity’s right to limit leadership positions to Christians.
Becket photo
Wayne State University (WSU) recertified InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as an official campus student group two days after InterVarsity filed a lawsuit against WSU, the university said in a March 8 statement to media.

InterVarsity's legal representative the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said the university should also reimburse InterVarsity the near $3,000 the group has paid in rental fees after losing its free use of university space for meetings and other activities.

"It's good that Wayne State saw the light after it felt the heat," Becket senior counsel Lori Windham said in a March 8 press release. "But after putting these students through the runaround for months, a last-minute change of heart is hardly enough.

"This kind of official religious discrimination should never happen again," Windham said. "And Wayne State needs to return the thousands of dollars it charged the student group."

WSU has not officially addressed the reimbursement, but will likely not object to refunding the fees, WSU Communications Director Matt Lockwood told BP today.

"I'm sure that will be taken care of," Lockwood told BP by telephone. In its official statement released to the media, the university said it values student groups as an integral part of campus life and co-curricular learning.

"After a review of the situation and communicating with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship organization, Wayne State has decided to recertify the group as an official student organization," the university said. "The InterVarsity student group is committed to welcoming and including all students, and the university will not intervene in the group's leadership selection."

InterVarsity had operated at WSU as a Christian student group for 75 years when in 2017 WSU cancelled InterVarsity's official campus group status, accusing InterVarsity of discrimination for requiring group leaders to be Christian, Becket said in a March 6 lawsuit against WSU. But WSU is the one practicing discrimination, Becket said.

"Wayne State's attempt to tell InterVarsity how to define its faith and select its leaders is anti-religious discrimination that violates clearly established federal and state law," Becket said in its lawsuit. "Simply put, Wayne State is unconstitutionally targeting InterVarsity because of InterVarsity's religious beliefs."

An InterVarsity member said it was good to be back on campus.

"Being part of our school community has meant the world to us, and we're so glad that Wayne State is letting us back on campus," Cristina Garza, a chapter former president and current member, said in Becket's press release.

WSU's decision came after Becket told WSU the legal firm would seek an emergency court order to have InterVarsity reinstated. Although Becket said the reinstatement was "at least" temporary, the university told BP the reinstatement is permanent.

InterVarsity and Becket are reviewing the school's decision to determine their next steps, Becket said.

See BP's March 8 story on the plight of Christian ministries on college campuses.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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