Campus Christian groups get government backing

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Next up: religious liberty on campus.

The Department of Education last week released a new rule on free speech and religious liberty at public and private universities. It’s got teeth to it: federal grants are tied to the schools’ protection of students’ First Amendment rights. 

Public universities are already required to uphold the Constitution, but students often have to take administrators to court to enforce their rights. The new rule adds an extra incentive for universities to do what they’re already supposed to do.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: The new rule also requires public universities to give religious student groups equal access to all the benefits secular groups enjoy. Things like the ability to reserve meeting rooms and apply to receive funding from student fees. Christian groups on campus have had to fight for these benefits as they are accused of discrimination. University administrators sometimes punish these groups for trying to uphold Biblical teachings on marriage and sexuality.

REICHARD: One of the groups in the thick of this battle is InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. That’s an inter-denominational, evangelical ministry founded 79 years ago. It has chapters on nearly 800 campuses across the country. Greg Jao is its director of external relations. He joins us now to talk about this new rule.

Good morning, Greg!

GREG JAO, GUEST: Good morning, Mary. 

REICHARD: Well, let’s just start right there. How will this rule affect InterVarsity’s day-to-day activities?

JAO: The rule frees Intervarsity to focus on its mission, and I think the best thing it does is it frees students from the fear that they’re going to be de-recognized for requiring their leaders to be Christians. And instead they can focus on serving the campus, caring for their fellow students, and engaging their studies as Christians. It’s a great opportunity for our students. 

REICHARD: It seems to me that in the last few years we’ve heard about fewer challenges to Christian groups on campus. Is that so? Has InterVarsity faced fewer First Amendment fights, or are we just not hearing about it?

JAO: We’ve had about the same number of First Amendment challenges in the last few years than we have in past years. They may not have risen to the level of public attention, but in two cases at the University of Iowa and at Wayne State University, we’ve had to file lawsuits to protect the students there. And, in many other cases, it’s just involving extensive negotiation with universities really across the United States. 

REICHARD: What do you think is going on? What’s behind those kinds of challenges?

JAO: I think there are two things that are happening behind campus access challenges. In the one case, I think honestly it’s just a wooden reading of non-discrimination policies. We’ve tried to point out in those cases that, in fact, what it means not to discriminate against religious groups is to allow them to be fully religious, which includes allowing the religion to practice its own leadership requirements. And so we’ve tried to help administrators see a more welcoming, diverse, inclusive posture means allowing religious groups to be religious. And there are a number of universities—Ohio State, University of Texas at Austin, University of Florida—have already built these in to non-discrimination policies.

I think the second thing that sometimes happens is if it’s not just a wooden reading of non-discrimination policy, it’s just a misunderstanding of what religion really is. And so I’ve had a number of administrators say, “Couldn’t you do a Bible test to choose leaders?” And what I try to point out to them is there’s a vast difference between knowledge and belief. And the core issue for all religious groups is actually religious belief, not just knowledge. And so sometimes it’s just a misunderstanding of religion. On a very rare occasion it may be some antipathy toward religious groups, but by and large I think it’s a failure to understand how religion works and a failure of imagination about what non-discrimination and inclusion really require. 

REICHARD: Private universities are not required to protect First Amendment rights on campus. That’s distinguished from the public universities. But this new rule does require private universities to follow their own written policies on freedom of expression, if they want to apply for federal grants. Can you talk about how Christian groups have fared at private universities in recent years. And will this new rule help?

JAO: Private universities have been just as problematic as public universities around campus access issues and there’s a host of universities where this has been an issue. My hope is that the new regulation redefines what non-discrimation is so that it’s fully inclusive of religious students. One of the challenges we face right now, of course, is universities will approve some religious groups and disapprove of other religious groups. And often the only distinction is the groups that have been disapproved, de-recognized are ones who have religiously based leadership requirements. The new regulations require public universities to treat all religious groups equally. My hope is this sets the standards across higher education so that private universities will also read their non-discrimination policy so that they aren’t picking and choosing between religious groups, which I think violates the spirit of what they’re trying to accomplish. 

REICHARD: This rule carries more weight than, say, an executive order, because it did go through the official, lengthy, rule-making process. But it can be changed under another administration.  So, how much solace do you take in this? Is it a long-term reprieve, or more like a respite?

JAO: I’m hoping it’s a long term reprieve. We recognize that there is a possibility that another administration would change the rule, but I trust that it’s difficult or at least requires some thought before you change a rule like this. And I think the fact that Muslim groups and Jewish groups in addition to Christian groups all said this actually serves not just Christian groups like InterVarsity, but it also serves religious minority groups, which are particularly vulnerable from being excluded from campus if they require their leaders to be adherers to their faith because they don’t have the resources like InterVarsity does to defend themselves. And so at the University of Iowa, for example, when we were de-recognized, so was a Hindu group, a Seikh group, the LDS group. In fact, more than even the Christian groups, it’s minority religious groups that need the kind of protection this regulation offers. And I hope every administration in their commitment to creating a welcoming and inclusive and diverse campus experience will support the regulations going forward.

REICHARD: Greg Jao is director of external relations with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Thanks so much for joining us today!

JAO: Thank you so much, Mary.

(Photo/iStock) Duke University Chapel

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