InterVarsity defends right to religious freedom on campus

By June 18, 2018

United States (MNN) — InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is defending religious freedom at Wayne State University in Michigan. The organization has been on this campus for 75 years. However, in 2017, the InterVarsity chapter at Wayne State was denied recognition as a student group. Wayne State claimed the group was discriminating by requiring its leaders to be Christians.

Defending Religious Freedom

In efforts to be re-recognized and to defend its rights, InterVarsity made the decision to sue the school last fall.

“Well, after we filed the lawsuit, Wayne State said they’d happily take us back on campus and did recognize the chapter. But then, just a short time later, asserted in court that it had the right to prohibit religious groups from requiring their leaders to be adherent to that religion,” InterVarsity’s Greg Jao shares.

“And so, we’ve continued with our suit against Wayne State because we believe that the best way to promote diversity and inclusion on campus for religious groups, is to allow religious groups to be distinctly religious.”

(Photo courtesy of InterVarsity via Facebook)

Jao says the Christian groups on campus should be led by Christians.  Just as a Muslim student group should also have the right to require Muslim leadership. But, Wayne State is arguing it does not need to allow this, nor does it plan to allow this.

Still, the pivotal question rests on the legal rights of both InterVarsity and Wayne State.

Public Universities are protected by the first amendment. Jao says this means “the constitution generally is read to both prohibit Wayne State from preventing religious groups from doing religious things and being religious, unless it’s dangerous to the public, and simultaneously is prevented under the establishment clause from creating competitors to religious groups. I.e. sponsoring an official university religious group.”

Religious Groups on Campus

Most schools have chosen to include religious groups on campus while allowing them to be distinctly religious and reflect their faith tradition. This includes InterVarsity and its right to appoint and require Christian leaders within campus chapters.

Still, there’s a catch. A narrow range under current Supreme Court rulings allows universities to prohibit religious student groups from having religious leadership requirements. However, this is only if the college implements an all-comers policy. Learn more about the all-comers policy from NPR here.

“Under a case called Martinez vs. The Hastings School of Law in California, an all-comers policy means every student group must allow any student to be a leader and a member in the group,” Jao explains.

“Wayne State does not qualify for this because there are about 90 groups where they have made exceptions to leadership or membership requirements.”

The End Game

InterVarsity does not enjoy suing its mission field. In fact, the organization despises taking legal action against universities and colleges. The ministry loves campuses, campus administrations, the students, and believes universities are a vibrant place for ministry.

(Photo courtesy InterVarsity Christian Fellowship)

However, InterVarsity believes it’s important to hold universities to the highest possible standards. For public universities in the U.S. who claim to be committed to “a marketplace of ideas”, this means upholding the right of freedom of religion for student groups. It also means allowing religious groups to be distinctly religious.

“Our hope is that as the court engages with both InterVarsity and Wayne State, it will help call Wayne State to its highest values; Wayne State and InterVarsity will reach an amicable solution that preserves religious freedom, not just for InterVarsity, but for every religious group on campus,” Jao says.

Overall, InterVarsity’s biggest goal is for a vibrant Christ honoring fellowship to be present on Wayne State’s campus, regardless of circumstance.

Encouragement Through Testimonies

Despite the current challenges, InterVarsity firmly believes that Christ is at work in all places of the world. For this reason, InterVarsity is committed to being the salt and light on university campuses.

Jao has been in contact with the InterVarsity chapter students at Wayne State. Through this trial, many of these students’ faiths have been strengthened.

“One student said, ‘I am so committed to making sure a Christian fellowship is vibrant and witnessing on this campus. And I now understand in a new way why our beliefs matter and why both now as a student (and later as an adult), it’s import for me to take a stand for my faith and not give up’,” Jao recalls.

Growth Despite Trials

With that said, students are growing through this trial at Wayne State. Last year on campuses across the country, InterVarsity witnessed over 4,000 college students make a first-time decision to follow Christ.

“These are record numbers of students that we’re seeing turning to Jesus every year. Even though it seems dark on some campuses, in fact, we’re seeing more spiritual hunger, more spiritual openness, and more people coming to faith than at any time in our history,” Jao shares.

“I think often the witness of the Church is brightest when the culture seems darkest. And when the contrast between following Jesus and the culture is heightened, students have an easier time making the decision in saying, ‘I’m going to follow Jesus, not just what the culture tells me to.’”

So please, be encouraged by the way God is shaping the hearts of students on Wayne State’s campus. However, also take time to pray for them. Pray for InterVarsity as it faces challenges at Wayne State University and other campuses.

Find information on campus access issues here.


For more information on Wayne State campus access or to support the students there, contact InterVarsity through its web page.

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