Two Christian groups booted last year from California State University for insisting that their student leaders must be Christian are scheduled to return in the fall after making what could be described as a leap of faith.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, now Cru, have agreed to modify their bylaws so that students may apply for leadership posts without having made a formal profession of Christian belief, CSU Director of Public Affairs Toni Molle said.
“We can’t have clubs that discriminate. We didn’t change our executive order,” Ms. Molle said in an interview. “The charters and bylaws for InterVarsity and Cru have been modified to be in compliance with our executive order.”
That 2011 executive order, issued by CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed in one of his last acts before retiring, requires student groups to allow “all comers” to join as well as run for leadership posts, even if the candidate’s beliefs conflict with that of the organization.
At the same time, she said that CSU officials resolved a “misunderstanding” by stressing that students belonging to Christian clubs are free to select their own leaders and quiz candidates for leadership slots on any number of issues, including their religious beliefs.
“There were some misunderstandings about the requirements of the executive order, and during our extensive discussions, CSU leaders clarified that nothing in our policy limits a student organization in their ability to engage in a robust and highly informed election process,” Ms. Molle said.
The agreement appears to resolve the most high-profile case to date stemming from a 2010 Supreme Court decision saying that “all comers” must be allowed to join student groups at public universities, which has been interpreted at some colleges as to include seeking leadership posts.
Officials at Cal State, the nation’s largest system of public universities, derecognized the two Christian clubs for the 2014-15 academic year, forcing them both to operate off campus or pay for facilities such as room rental that come free of charge for recognized groups.
Neither organization would comment on specific bylaw changes, but officials said they were pleased with the outcome and confident that they would be able to continue their Christian ministry without compromising their principles.
“Cru is returning to the California State University campuses as a recognized student organization,” said Cru Vice President of Campus Ministry Mark Gauthier in a Tuesday statement.
“After lengthy interaction with the office of the Chancellor we are confident that our student leaders will be men and women who are able to live out our historical mission without compromise,” Mr. Gauthier said.
Greg Jao, InterVarsity’s director of campus engagement, said that InterVarsity agreed to “some small technical fixes,” but stressed that the group’s bylaws still make it clear that “leaders are expected to lead the group in a manner consistent with InterVarsity’s mission and message.”
“What [CSU] said is as long as every student has the right to apply and be considered, they would be satisfied,” Mr. Jao said in an interview. “We said we’d be willing to allow anyone to apply and be considered, as long as our students are free to ask questions during the selection process about faith, missions and message.”
Student leaders “need to be able to accomplish the purpose of the group, which is a profoundly religious mission and purpose,” he said.
“So yes, there was some change in the language, but essentially what we’ve said, both before and after, is we expect students and need students who can lead the organization with integrity around mission and message,” Mr. Jao said.
A handful of universities have adopted “all comers” policies preventing clubs from adopting belief-based eligibility criteria for leadership since the Supreme Court’s decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, while at least four states have countered by outlawing such rules at public universities.
As the nation’s largest public university system, Cal State touched off a nationwide uproar among religious and free speech groups with its decision to derecognize the two Christian groups on its 23 campuses, which serve 450,000 students.
Cal State’s executive order specifically excludes sororities and fraternities from its anti-discrimination policy.
“College students deserve the right to freely organize around shared and sincere religious beliefs,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, after Idaho passed a bill banning “all comers” policies in leadership posts in 2013.
“The freedom to have belief-based requirements for group leaders is a necessary part of ensuring that a pluralistic and diverse culture can exist on campus,” Mr. Lukianoff said.
Critics have argued that such policies make it all too easy for ideological foes to stack membership rolls and then vote in leaders opposed to Christian values in order to “undermine or destroy the group,” said FIRE in a statement.
Mr. Jao said InterVarsity has never tried to stop non-Christians from joining — in fact, he estimates that 25 percent of its 19.5 million members at higher education institutions nationwide “identify as non-Christians.”
“What we worked out was Cal State’s key interest was that every student should have the ability to be a member and run for leadership,” Mr. Jao said. “We’re very comfortable with that — in fact, we would love it if every student would come out for InterVarsity. It would save us a lot of effort.”
Although both of the groups derecognized were Christian, Ms. Molle insisted that Cal State had not honed in on Christian groups.
“It wasn’t like we targeted these groups, it was [that] if they had the wording in their bylaws, then they were not certified,” she said. “It wasn’t just them.”
As to why other religious-based organizations avoided the brouhaha, Mr. Jao suggested that it may be because those groups had no belief-based leadership requirements in their charters.
“I talked to one leader [of the Muslim Student Association] at one school, and they said, ‘Well, of course we require our leaders to be Muslim. I mean, we’re the Muslim Student Association, but it never occurred to us that we had to put it in the constitution,’” Mr. Jao said. “‘And now that it’s forbidden, we have no incentive to be clear.’”
After months of meetings with Christian group officials, Ms. Molle said, CSU officials look forward to seeing InterVarsity and Cru back on campus in the fall.
“I think this is good news for CSU and good news for InterVarsity and Cru,” said Ms. Molle. “Now that their bylaws are in compliance, it’s all good.”