Politics & Policy

Colleges Use ‘Anti-Discrimination’ Rules Against Christians

Can school administrators decide who belongs in a Christian group?

Bowdoin College’s evangelical group will no longer be recognized by the college starting next fall. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the college is demanding that any student should be able to run for leadership for any student group, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, but the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship disagrees.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” recent Bowdoin graduate and former leader of BCF Zackary Suhr told The Times.

The incident at Bowdoin has occurred at many other colleges and universities in recent years. While the universities present the absolute non-discrimination demands as an effort to rid their campuses of intolerance and exclusivity, religious students see it as an encroachment on their religious freedom perpetrated by liberal academia who are hostile toward conservative Christianity.

A study done by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research found that college faculty share significantly more negative feelings toward Evangelical Christians than toward any other religious group, with 53 percent reporting that had unfavorable feelings toward Evangelicals. This is compared to just 3 percent who have unfavorable feelings toward Jews, 9 percent toward non-Evangelical Christians, and 10 percent toward Atheists. According to the study, these negative feelings are noted across disciplines and demographic factors. The study also found that the faculty are much less religious than the general public.

Evangelical and other religious groups say they welcome anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or religious beliefs, to participate in their activities. But their leaders, who oversee Bible studies and prayer services, should have at least a basic Christian faith, the groups insist.

Losing official school recognition can have real consequences for these religious groups. Often they lose the right to use the universities’ names, on-campus recruiting tools, and access to student activity funds or subsidized spaces for meetings and worship.

The California State University public system, which includes almost 450,000 students on 23 campuses, is also joining the campaign against evangelical groups. If Cal State’s chancellor has it his way, evangelical groups will also lose official recognition this summer due to their refusal to sign non-discrimination forms regarding the selection of their groups’ leaders.

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Cal State Chico student Austin Weatherby believes that to lead a Bible study, one needs to believe in basic Christian principles. “We’re not willing to water down our beliefs in order to be accepted,” he said.

Susan Westover, a lawyer for the California State University System, said that though the campus welcomes evangelicals, there are no exceptions to the anti-discrimination requirements, which state that the no campus will recognize any student organization “unless its membership and leadership are open to all currently enrolled students at that campus.” “Our mission is education, not exclusivity,” she told the Times. There already is an exception in the anti-discrimination policy, however, as it states that social fraternities and sororities may impose a gender limitation.

At Vanderbilt, over a dozen religious groups have already lost the school’s official recognition, again for not complying with an absolute non-discrimination policy. Most, but not all, of these groups were evangelicals. Vanderbilt Catholic, now called University Catholic since they cannot use the name Vanderbilt, decided to leave the university, writing in an open letter:

“We are an open and welcoming community that people of all faiths can join, but we require our leaders to share this Catholic faith and practice. A student group led by those who do not share these things might be a very worthwhile and beneficial organization, but it would not be Catholic in the fullest sense of the word. These faith-based requirements for leadership are as important to the integrity of our organization as musical range is for a choral group.”

National Review’s David French wrote, “Vanderbilt’s embattled religious organizations welcome all students with open arms; Vanderbilt’s fraternities and sororities routinely reject their fellow students based on little more than appearance, family heritage, or personality quirks.”

Evangelical groups have also lost official status at Rollins College in Florida, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Tufts University.

Alec Hill, the president of a national association of evangelical student groups called InterVarsity, calls the evangelical groups’ loss of official recognition “absurd.” He told the Times, “The genius of American culture is that we allow voluntary, self-identified organizations to form, and that’s what our student groups are.”

– Molly Wharton is an intern at National Review.

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