USA (MNN) — There's another challenge to an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship student chapter, this time at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
A late re-registration last fall for an InterVarsity chapter (one of 10 on campus) drew closer scrutiny that eventually led to problems over violations to the school's non-discrimination policies.
Greg Jao, InterVarsity's National Field Director explains, "By December, they said it was impermissible for the Asian InterVarsity Fellowship–an outreach Asian Americans on the University of Michigan campus–to impose religious requirements for that religious student group."
The sticking point: the chapter's constitution requires chapter leaders to sign and adhere to InterVarsity's Doctrinal Basis and Chapter Covenant. The University came from the position that such a requirement conflicts with Michigan's Nondiscrimination Policy.
In January 2013, the Asian InterVarsity chapter (AIV), the largest of the 10 InterVarsity chapters at Ann Arbor, was de-recognized because the University felt the policy was discriminatory in preventing any student from becoming a leader in InterVarsity. The University also released a statement disputing the reasons for de-recognition, and stating that de-recognition was based on a missed deadline in the annual re-registration process.
In yet another meeting on February 4, 2013, Jao said they outlined four arguments on the policy issue. First, Jao pointed out, "‘It's a scriptural requirement for us. If you tell us that we can't observe that scriptural requirement, in fact, you're imposing a different theology on us.'"
Taking the diversity argument further, he said, "If you value a truly diverse environment on campus, you need to have groups on campus which fully reflect the origins and purposes of that group. So, you need Christian groups to be led by Christians." Jao added that the Christian requirement was also a skill requirement. "I need students who know Jesus. Those are the students who can pray, who can lead others to faith. We need people who are committed to the authority of Scripture, who can lead Bible study."
Jao acknowledged the idea of discrimination; however, he argued, "Sports clubs have gender discrimination and they have able-bodied discrimination. Fraternities and sororities do gender discrimination all the time. It's not that the University is against discrimination, in principle absolutely; rather, they established that, at times, it is permissible to discriminate along including these various classes, including religion, if it advances the good of the University."
Noting the 73-year-long InterVarsity presence on the campus of the University of Michigan, Jao said, "We've been a good partner of the University. Just as you allow sports teams to discriminate on those grounds because it advances the sports team's purpose, could you allow religious groups to do the same?"
The good news, Jao says, is this: "The University offered to give us recognition as an exception to its non-discrimination policy." In other words, the University of Michigan has re-recognized the Asian InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter.
However, rather than argue an exception to the rule, why not argue the rule itself? Why not ask if the University would formally amend the policy so that it's written to guarantee religious groups the freedom to choose their own leaders?
If the policy remains the same, this situation could easily be repeated in the future. Jao says comparable situations with other schools resulted in a change in the non-discrimination policy itself. "We've had the same conversation at a number of schools: Ohio State, Minnesota, Florida, and the University of Texas Austin, all have similar policies, and we actually brought copies of those policies to Michigan to say ‘what we're asking for is really not out of bounds. This is something that your peer institutions are already doing. Would you consider doing the same thing?"
The likelihood of success? Jao admits, "They're hedging at this point, frankly. I'm not sure that they're willing to do that, but we're continuing the conversation."
Additionally, given the coverage of the situation in the local media, the question of stigma on InterVarsity came up. It's possible, but Jao looks on the bright side. "This gives us new opportunities to talk with students on campus because students on campus are now asking questions: ‘What's the place of a religious group on campus?' 'Why do people believe the way that they believe?' And, ‘Should those beliefs change the way we live?'"
The religious freedom dialogue is continuing, too. "We've been urging all of our Fellowships to actively engage the students, faculty, and staff at the University of Michigan with that question and to invite them into a conversation which will help them encounter Jesus."
However, should the policy remain the unchanged, the reality is: next time de-recognition might stick like it did at Vanderbilt University. What would happen to InterVarsity's ministry then? Jao remains undaunted. "Even if we don't have formal access to the University buildings, ministry is still going to continue. The Church has spent 2000 years learning how to do ministry in places where the government or the officials don't want you to meet officially. We're confident the Gospel will move forward."