Campus ministries maneuver obstacles like non-discrimination laws
“For many years now, colleges and universities have required student organizations to use non-discrimination clauses in their constitutions,” said Tom Knight, collegiate consultant of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC).
Despite discrimination incidents across the nation, North Carolina churches and Christian organizations continue to minister to its university campuses.
Campus clubs, organizations, fraternities, sports groups, and others are called recognized student organizations (RSOs). They are led, governed and directed by college students. Universities request that RSOs attract the larger student body without duplicating other RSOs on campus. Many colleges also desire for RSOs to affirm and reiterate the school’s educational mission.
Most groups wishing to become RSOs have to apply to a university’s leadership office to gain official RSO status. “From the university’s perspective, the organization is not led by a pastor or campus ministry or even an off-campus volunteer; it is led by a group of students,” said Jonathan Yarboro, leader and consultant of BSC’s collegiate partnerships.
Depending on the school, Knight said, some want to interpret its non-discrimination clauses more broadly while others in a narrower sense. The Hastings Law School of California is an example of the broader perspective. Their clause states that all students can take leadership positions in a student group even if they are opposed to the student group’s mission or beliefs.
The Christian Legal Society (CLS) chapter at Hastings did not comply with the non-discrimination policy of the school, and thus, their application to gain RSO status was rejected on the grounds that the group’s bylaws did not comply with the school’s open-access policy.
CLS didn’t want individuals who (1) did not adhere to its system of beliefs or (2) those who were in an unbiblical sexual relationship to lead Bible studies or hold office within CLS.
CLS filed a suit alleging that Hastings’ refusal to grant the group RSO status violated its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The case went to the United States Supreme Court – Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez– but CLS lost five-to-four.
At California State University (CSU) this past summer, the school officially ‘derecognized’ InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) as an RSO. In 1877, InterVarsity was started by British students at the University of Cambridge. The first IVCF chapter opened at the University of Michigan in 1938.
After failing to comply with a 2011 executive order from former CSU chancellor, Charles Reed, IVCF no longer has official RSO status at any of CSU’s 23 sites that boasts more than 450,000 students.
Cal State representatives have stated that some Christian organizations complied with CSU’s 2011 order.
Susan Westover, a lawyer for the CSU system, told The New York Times, “Lots of evangelical groups are thriving on our campuses. … Our mission is education, not exclusivity.” CSU administrators insist they welcome evangelicals, yet they want them to agree to the same policies as all RSOs.
Another typical non-discrimination clause can be found at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Their constitution reads: “Membership and participation in recognized student organizations must be open to all students without regard to age, race, color, national origin, disability, religious status or historic religious affiliation, veteran status, or sexual orientation. Membership and participation in registered student organizations must also be open without regard to gender, unless exempt under Title IX (as outlined in SBS §7-1.5).”
Many benefits are afforded for being a RSO such as the use of certain campus facilities, library usage, a personalized campus email address and most importantly, official recognition by the university.
“Please remember that in dealing with private schools, there is more legal room for the school to exert its own vision such as at Vanderbilt,” Knight noted.
In early 2012, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., also enforced a non-discrimination policy and a new all-comers policy. Baptist Press reported that even though Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) was approved as a recognized student organization on the campus of Vanderbilt, the BCM declined that status.
Randy C. Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, told Baptist Press: “[O]n April 22 , it came to my attention that the application included our representatives signing the revised non-discrimination policy,” he wrote. “It is our understanding now that ‘to abide by,’ means ‘to accept without objection’ and ‘to accept as our own.’”
Davis noted that signing onto the policy would require the BCM “if the occasion should ever arise, to open the leadership to those who were not Christian. Perhaps we should have known this earlier, but we did not,” he wrote.
Knight said several states including Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia have already passed or are in the process of passing laws directing their state college systems to add exemptions to their non-discrimination clauses for religious and political groups.
North Carolina is included in this list.
Effective in June, the General Assembly of North Carolina granted that no public university or community college could deny recognition of student organizations entirely because of their faith, beliefs and mission.
Rather than overreacting to events like Hastings Law School, Cal State and Vanderbilt, Knight counsels churches and Christian organizations to explore alternative models of ministry on collegiate campuses.
Yarboro said they have identified seven different models of campus ministry in North Carolina: the missional community model, the collegiate church plant model, the campus-based model, the churched-based ministry model, the satellite church model, the shared-space partnership model and the unreached people group model.
BCM, for instance, utilizes the campus-based model. This model assigns a campus minister to a specific university to serve as a bridge between the campus and a local church.
Knight emphasized that the seven campus ministry models were not created because of the court cases happening across the nation; rather they were already previously identified.
“It is important to understand that these models weren’t identified to replace something; they were identified to give people options.
“If for some reason one option is removed, then another option becomes critical.”