InterVarsity Christian Fellowship prevails in lawsuit against Wayne State University
On April 5, a judge for the U.S. District Court of Eastern Michigan handed down a ruling against Wayne State University and in favor of the First Amendment rights of the public school’s religious clubs.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship “has for 75 years operated a Christian student organization on the campus of Wayne State University, but in 2017 was denied continued official recognition or registration as a legitimate student group. Why? Because InterVarsity’s leadership standards ran afoul of the college’s ‘nondiscrimination policy’ in requiring that its faith leaders profess to be faithful,” Judge Robert Cleland framed the conflict in his decision.
An official for Wayne State had demanded InterVarsity amend its own constitution to allow anyone to be in leadership, even if they disagree with the religious beliefs of the organization. InterVarsity refused, so Wayne State de-registered the club in 2017.
Deregistration cut InterVarsity off from some funds and had the larger effect of removing the group as a normal part of campus life. With the help of the public interest law firm the Becket Fund, the club sued the college and won, three years later, in the ruling earlier this week.
Right after InterVarsity filed suit in 2018, Wayne State reinstated the club. But the school maintained that it had acted within its rights to de-register. InterVarsity, which is part of a much larger organization with its own publishing arm and with a presence on hundreds of campuses, decided this claim of rights was important, and so pressed on.
In their response, school administrators appeared bitter about InterVarsity’s decision to keep litigating.
“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 said in a statement to Fox News.
“Now, two years later, the judge has awarded $1 in nominal damages, as well as the opportunity for InterVarsity to continue the lawsuit in pursuit of compensatory damages, despite having been restored to their previous status in March of 2018.”
The judge ruled a bit more than that. Specifically, Cleland held that the public university “violated [InterVarsity’s] rights to internal management, free speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and free exercise as a matter of law. [Wayne State] also violated the Establishment Clause as a matter of law.”
Among the other findings that form the basis of his ruling, Cleland found that Wayne State had behaved in a discriminatory manner with the application of its nondiscrimination policy.
“There is no genuine dispute that other [Registered Student Organizations] at Wayne State limited membership and leadership, during and after the timeframe of [InterVarsity’s] deregistration, based on categories included in the non-discrimination policy. Unlike [InterVarsity], those groups were not found in violation of the policy,” Cleland wrote.
“Specifically, club sports teams on Wayne State’s campus excluded members who did not fall within their prescribed sex or gender identity categories. Also, Greek letter fraternities and sororities excluded members and leaders based on their sex and gender identity. The Iraqi Student Organization required that its leaders be ‘dedicated Iraqi student[s].’ The Student Veterans Organization limited membership and leadership positions to those who were veterans, veteran’s dependents, and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (‘ROTC’) members,” he explained.
Cleland noted that Wayne State’s nondiscrimination policy had been selectively applied against religious groups, mostly. Unlike InterVarsity, other religious clubs had quietly gone along with it to stay a normal part of university life.
Now that Wayne State University is permanently “enjoined from revoking [InterVarsity’] RSO status” based on the Christian club’s “religious criteria for student leadership selection,” other clubs may reassert this right as well.
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