Federal Court Issues Commonsense Win for Campus Religious Group at Wayne State

COMMENTARY The Constitution

Federal Court Issues Commonsense Win for Campus Religious Group at Wayne State

Apr 16th, 2021 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Sarah Parshall Perry

Legal Fellow, Meese Center

Sarah Parshall Perry is a Legal Fellow for the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Cleland’s ruling flipped the script. In fact, it was InterVarsity that had been discriminated against by Wayne State, whose actions were “obviously odious to the Constitution.” SDI Productions / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Campus groups, students, and professors who aren’t interested in kowtowing to groupthink have had a run of good luck lately in federal courts.

InterVarsity’s constitution allows all students to join the group as members, but leadership positions are limited to those who agree with its statement of faith.

It seems the courts are growing tired of cancel culture run amok.

Campus groups, students, and professors who aren’t interested in kowtowing to groupthink on issues concerning their own faith and constitutionally guaranteed rights have had a run of good luck lately in federal courts.

Just a few days ago, in a lengthy opinion, Judge Robert Cleland of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted partial summary judgment for the Christian group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, finding that Wayne State University discriminated against it when it kicked it off campus for requiring its leaders to be… Christians. (*clutches pearls!*)

In so doing, the court joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit and the Supreme Court in protecting constitutional freedoms within an academic context. Those courts have moved to protect free speech and religious liberty while also lowering the bar for damages, allowing the suit to be brought on the basis of a violated constitutional right.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA is a religious organization that conducts outreach and religious ministry on more than 600 college campuses across the country. The group imposes certain faith-based limitations on which students can become leaders of their campus groups in the same way that other student groups on campuses nationwide impose leadership requirements—religious or not.

Up until 2017, InterVarsity was a recognized student organization at Wayne State University, joining the ranks of other recognized student organizations like fraternities, sororities, sports teams, political organizations, and activist groups. It enjoyed all the benefits of being so, including the ability to reserve free or reduced-price meeting spaces, access to student recruitment tools, the ability to apply for school funds, the use of online school organizing platforms, and more.

Like many colleges and universities, Wayne State has a nondiscrimination policy. Among other applications, the policy determined whether a group’s leadership and membership criteria were discriminatory. The policy reads:

[Wayne State] embraces all persons regardless of race, color, sex (including gender identity), national origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, familial status, marital status, height, weight, disability, or veteran status and expressly forbids sexual harassment and discrimination in hiring, terms of employment, tenure, promotion, placement and discharge of employees, admission, training and treatment of students, extracurricular activities, the use of University services, facilities, and the awarding of contracts.

InterVarsity’s constitution allows all students to join the group as members, but leadership positions are limited to those who agree with its statement of faith. In March 2017, InterVarsity submitted this constitution (not materially different from previous iterations, or different than ones used at other public universities) to campus leadership at Wayne State, as required.

However, on Sept. 14, 2017, the chapter president submitted a renewed recognized student organization application for that school year. And the next day, one of the school administrators told the group’s president that InterVarsity’s officer requirements violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy.

The next month, Wayne State revoked its recognition of InterVarsity as a recognized student organization, even though secular groups both during and after InterVarsity’s deregistration were allowed to limit membership and leadership based on agreement with their mission principles.  

In ruling for InterVarsity, Cleland cited Supreme Court precedent including Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru for the proposition that the First Amendment creates a broad right under the “ministerial exception” against any government intrusion into a religious organization’s internal affairs, including the right to select its leaders.

That same right was enforced by the 6th Circuit when that court barred a sex discrimination lawsuit against a different InterVarsity chapter in Conlon v. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

In a commonsense recitation of why the “anti-discrimination” policy at Wayne State was a violation of the First Amendment, Cleland wrote:

Defendants [Wayne State] are taking action against Plaintiffs [InterVarsity] because they do not allow non-believers, who may be hostile to Plaintiffs’ religious tenets, to hold important spiritual offices. An avowed atheist that holds deep resentment toward the Christian faith must, under Defendants’ policy, be given the opportunity to become a Christian leader.

When school officials kicked InterVarsity off campus back in 2017—a group that had successfully operated its student chapter at Wayne State without incident for 75 years—they informed InterVarsity’s leadership that its leadership requirements were “discriminatory.”

Instead, Cleland’s ruling flipped the script. In fact, it was InterVarsity that had been discriminated against by Wayne State, whose actions were “obviously odious to the Constitution.”  

This might portend a good outcome for a student plaintiff at the University of Virginia. There, a medical student posed a series of straightforward questions to a panel during a lecture on “microaggressions”—a notoriously weak area of “scholarship”—and was subsequently branded a threat to Thomas Jefferson’s university.

The faculty issued a “Professionalism Concern Card” against him, suspended him from the University of Virginia Medical School, required him to undergo counseling, obtain “medical clearance” as a prerequisite for remaining enrolled, and prevented him from appealing his suspension or applying for readmission.

A federal judge recently ruled that his First Amendment suit against the University of Virginia can proceed.

It seems the courts are growing tired of cancel culture run amok at the very institutions designed from their founding to promote and encourage intellectual dialogue on diverse thoughts and beliefs.  

In so doing, they join the rest of us who are tired of it, too. 

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal.