A federal judge ruled last week that Wayne State University violated the constitutional rights of a Christian student group that required its leaders to be Christians.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship had been active on the campus for 75 years before suing the school in 2018. The suit claimed Wayne State took away benefits it provides to other student groups because the religious requirement in InterVarsity’s constitution violated the university’s nondiscrimination policy.
“The uncontested facts demonstrate that” Wayne State violated InterVarsity’s “rights to internal management, free speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and free exercise as a matter of law,” U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland wrote in an 83-page opinion. “Defendants also violated the Establishment Clause as a matter of law.”
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The university said the lawsuit should have ended in 2018, when it reinstated InterVarsity on campus.
“The court’s ruling was not unexpected,” said Matt Lockwood, associate vice president of communications for Wayne State. “Unfortunately, despite the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship being granted everything it requested in a timely manner, it continued to pursue litigation, forcing the university to spend time and taxpayer dollars in an unnecessary lawsuit.”
The university is reviewing the ruling, he said.
“The law is crystal clear: Universities can’t kick religious student groups off campus just because they choose leaders who share their faith,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, public interest law firm, which filed the suit on behalf of InterVarsity. “The court’s commonsense ruling today means that InterVarsity must be treated fairly, just as it had been for 75 years at Wayne State, and now can continue its good work serving a diverse campus community.”
The suit argued that InterVarsity was booted off campus because of its religious beliefs.
The group is open to all students, but leadership roles are reserved for students who agree with the group’s “doctrine and purpose statements,” and who “exemplify Christ-like character, conduct and leadership,” according to the suit. Leaders also must describe their Christian beliefs and are given training “for serious spiritual responsibilities.”
In March 2017, InterVarsity submitted its constitution to Wayne State as part of an annual process to be approved as a registered student organization. The suit claims the constitution was not significantly different from the one it had submitted in previous years and almost identical to constitutions the group submits at other schools like the University of Michigan and Central Michigan University.
The application was approved, but a day later, the group received an email from Ricardo Villarosa, coordinator of student life for the school, saying its constitution must be rewritten because “Neither membership, nor officer requirements may violate the university anti-discrimination policy — please amend the officer requirements accordingly and resubmit.”
After more exchanges with Villarosa and lawyers for the university, the school revoked InterVarsity’s status as a registered student organization and canceled the group’s scheduled activities on campus.
InterVarsity said it was denied access to free or reduced rent space on campus, space in the student center to recruit new members and excluded from two campus recruiting events, FestiFall and WinterFest.
It also was booted off the list of official student groups posted on the school’s website; and denied access to an online school platform used to communicate with students and to post a schedule of events, according to the suit.
The group was recertified in 2018 but the suit continued.
The university’s policy prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, sex (including gender identity), national origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, familial status, marital status, height, weight, disability, or veteran status.”
The judge found that other groups on campus were not required to amend their charters in a similar way. He cited as examples club sport teams that are limited to a single gender as well as single gender fraternities and sororities.
The Iraqi Student Organization requires its leaders to be “dedicated Iraqi students.” The Student Veterans Organization limits both membership and leadership roles to military veterans and ROTC members.
The Muslim Student Association said in its registration that it would remove leaders for violating “an Islamic principle that deems him/her unworthy to serve as a Muslim leader on campus.” The Coptic Christian Club requires its leaders to be “Coptic Orthodox Christian.”
“It is undisputed that defendants intentionally and explicitly crafted their nondiscrimination policy to limit application to certain groups and categories while providing exceptions for others,” Cleland wrote. “Student groups were permitted to restrict leadership based on sex, gender identity, political partisanship, ideology, creed, ethnicity, and even GPA and physical attractiveness.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has stopped governments at other levels from interfering in similar ways, wrote Cleland, who was appointed in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.
“The court repeatedly and unequivocally stated the First Amendment creates a broad right against any government intrusion into a religious organization’s internal affairs,” Cleland wrote.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Judge finds Wayne State violated rights of Christian group
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