tothesource: We’ve been following news of the recent “declassification” of InterVarsity chapters on 23 Cal State campuses, but it’s not clear what exactly is at issue. What is the “diversity pledge” about?
Greg Jao: The California State University system has recently decided that religious student groups that use religious criteria in their leadership selection processes violate the system’s non-discrimination policy. Essentially, Cal State believes that requiring student leaders to be members of that religious group is an act of discrimination against non-religious students. We think that this is an illogical decision. (a) The non-discrimination policies was designed to protect religious groups, rather than penalize religious groups which desire to preserve their religious identity. (b) Any non-discrimination policy that results in protected groups being excluded from campus seems to be self-defeating. (c) Who else is qualified to lead a religious group beyond the people who believe that religion to be true. Our student leaders lead our bible studies, prayer meetings, and worship events. We think those events are best led by people who are religious. However, because student leaders must affirm the university’s non-discrimination policy as a pre-condition for registering as a student group (and we cannot), many of our campus ministries have been refused recognition.
InterVarsity has required its student leaders to affirm the Doctrinal Basis since the early 1940s. We believe it is critical that our groups remain theologically grounded.
The Cal State policy means that the 23 InterVarsity chapters on 19 Cal State campuses will be eventually refused recognition by the university. This has three implications:
1. Unrecognized student groups must pay to reserve meeting space on campus (as well as provide insurance coverage.) Some groups (e.g., InterVarsity at Sonoma State University) will need to pay nearly $30,000 this year to reserve a room. This is a significant cost for a student group to bear.
2. Unrecognized student groups no longer have access to student activities programming, including student activities fairs which are the primary ways students find groups that they might be interested in joining.
3. Unrecognized student groups have a stigma attached to them. Other students, faculty, and administrators know that the university does not approve of the group. The groups have been marginalized.
tts: As Director of Campus Access Challenges for Inter Varsity, how many campuses are facing restricted access this Fall? Does restricted access vary by campus or is there a common thread?
Jao: We’re still trying to assess the final number. (The situation on the ground changes daily.) We have groups that have been denied recognition throughout the Cal State system, as well as at places like Vanderbilt University, Bowdoin College, and Tufts University.
Increasingly, we’re finding that universities are using non-discrimination policies to prohibit religious-based leadership requirements. This has become the primary reason our groups have been challenged. We’re grateful for universities like UT-Austin, Ohio State, and U of FL which have non-discrimination policies that accommodate the need for religious groups to choose leaders based on religious criteria.
tts: How are Inter Varsity campus leaders responding to these challenges?
Jao: We’re responding in a number of ways.
1. We’re providing support and counsel to the groups that have been refused recognition at Cal State. This includes financial support so that they can meet on campus.
2. We’re continuing to engage with members of the Chancellor’s office. They claim they are hand-tied by state laws. We have invited the chancellor to ask Sacramento to amend the policy.
3. We’re supporting student leaders as they make a key faith decision: Will they trade in their core theological beliefs in favor of a meeting room? We think this prepares students for courageous discipleship in their workplaces and neighborhoods. Our Christian students are clearer about their beliefs than they were before, and they have experienced sacrificing important opportunities for the sake of theological faithfulness. It’s a great lesson that will pay off in the future.
4. We’re providing new tools – banner backpacks and the like – to these student groups.
tts: How can churches support Inter Varsity in their ministry to college students across the country?
Jao: 1. We ask that people pray for a change of heart by the leaders of institutions that have refused to recognize InterVarsity. Pray as well for student leaders who are encountering opposition (and sometimes vilification) for their beliefs. May this prepare them well for the future.
2. We ask that people consider giving to establish or to support ministry on a local campus.
3. Commission your college students this month as missionaries on campus. They are students first, of course. But God did not make a mistake when he sent them to the campus. Campus access challenges should not surprise us. Of course the mission field opposes our presence. We should pray for its salvation and for the privilege of standing in the gap.