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Explainer: InterVarsity ‘derecognized’ at California State University

California State University —America’s largest university system — has withdrawn recognition from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of the largest student Christian organizations because the group refuses to allow non-Christian to serve as leaders for their campus chapters. Here’s what you should know about this latest challenge to religious liberty on college campuses:

What is InterVarsity Christian Fellowship?

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA is an inter-denominational, Christian, student-led ministry that establishes and advances witnessing communities of students and faculty. Founded in 1941, the group has 949 chapters on 616 campuses in the U.S. Over 40,000 members engage in “small group Bible studies, large gatherings on campus, leadership training, thoughtful discipleship and life-changing conferences and events.”

What is the situation with InterVarsity and California State University?

In 2011 the chancellor of the California State University (CSU) system issued an executive order requiring that all recognized student groups have an open membership policy and not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability. (Fraternities and sororities, however, would still be allowed to discriminate based on gender.)

The new requirement also applied to leadership positions, which meant a student could get elected to a religious organization without subscribing to the group’s statement of belief — or even identifying with the religion of the group.

Because InterVarsity requires that all chapter leaders are required to affirm InterVarsity's Doctrinal Basis, CSU is essentially requiring the organization to change the core of it’s identity, and to change the way they operate in order to be an officially recognized student group.

Why is the policy just now taking effect?

In August 2013, a new chancellor granted religious groups a one-year exemption for the 2013-14 school year. CSU has stated, though, that that no further exemption will be given, so all 23 InterVarsity chapters on CSU campuses were “disassociated.”

What does CSU mean by “derecognized” or “disassociated”?

Disassociated means the club is no longer officially recognized or connected to the campus. Greg Jao, IVCF’s National Field Director and Campus Access Coordinator, explains what it means:

Loss of recognition means we lose 3 things: free access to rooms (this will cost our chapters $13k-30k/year to reserve room). We also lose access to student activities programs, including the new student fairs where we meet most students. We also lose standing when we engage faculty, students and administrators.

The group can officially rejoin the university if it changes the requirement to sign the statement. But the InterVarsity has no plans to revise its policies.

What are the effects of a campus group being disassociated?

Losing campus privileges makes it almost impossible for a group to carry out its intended mission. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest whose campus Christian group at Vanderbilt University was similarly “derecognized,” explains the impact it has on Christian groups:

. . . some deregistered groups are still meeting on campus, at this point, more or less because the chaplain is letting it happen out of kindness. But in terms of policy, we have no right to meet on campus so that could be revoked anytime (because of that most ousted groups are meeting off campus.).

Ministry is made more difficult there mainly because it’s harder to meet students (we can’t go to new student fairs or advertise on campus, we aren’t listed on the religious life site online and can’t use Vanderbilt’s name) and because we can’t sponsor events on campus (For instance my group worked with the Veritas forum to try to bring respected Christian academics like John Lennox or NT Wright on campus, which we can’t do under the new policy).

For some groups not being able to reserve rooms is a real problem because they have 100+ students involved so they can’t really just find a spare room. But the main thing lost wasn’t particular university privileges, but an ability to be a devotional community that is part of campus life on a pluralistic campus–we don’t just want stuff from the university, we love the university and can no longer participate fully in university life or the university community.

As we say on our website to explain the main reason we want to remain on campus: We love the university. We want to be citizens of the university. That’s why we are here in the first place. We believe that religious beliefs of all sorts deserve a seat at the table of ideas, and that religious orthodoxy ought not be excluded from campus. We are grateful that we’ve been able to be part of campus life—some of us for decades—and we want to continue to be part of the dialogue, joys, and challenges of university life.

(By the way, most religious groups at Vanderbilt do not receive funding from the university so this wasn’t about money…Although the 1,400 students in deregistered groups still have to pay activities fees to the university).

What will InterVarsity do now?

According to a recent press release, InterVarsity is “developing a new style of campus ministry on CSU campuses where we have been banned from participating in campus life as a recognized student organization.” To maintain a ministry presence, the 23 chapters are planning to introduce “creative new ways to connect with students and share the gospel message.” They note, however, that doing so as an “unrecognized” student group “will prove considerably more costly.”

Is this occurring at other schools?

According to Christianity Today, as far back as 1997, Grinnell College in Iowa banned InterVarsity because of its unwillingness to select a noncelibate gay leader. Since then several schools, including Tufts University, Rutgers, and the University of North Carolina (UNC), also derecognized InterVarsity because requiring leaders to be Christians violated the schools' anti-discrimination codes. UNC reversed its decision just weeks later; Rutgers settled out of courtTufts reinstated InterVarsity but later reversed it. InterVarsity recently lost campus access at SUNY Buffalo and Bowdoin College as well, notes Christianity Today.

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