What's Lost in Not Recognizing Campus Religious Groups

California State University's recent decision to strip InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapters of their school affiliation undermines its ability to teach pluralism.

This fall, California State University revoked the official club status of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship groups across its 23 campuses. InterVarsity was founded in 1938 and hosts nearly 1,000 chapters across the country today; it allows any student to be a member, but requires its leaders to affirm its “doctrinal basis,” which includes belief in the Bible’s “trustworthiness.” This statement has led some chapters to disallow non-celibate gay people from holding leadership positions (although there are no restrictions on membership), spurring protests against the club. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that it isn’t unconstitutional for a student club to require its leaders to adhere to specific religious beliefs, but colleges and universities also don’t have to recognize those clubs. The decision at Cal State, the largest university system in the country, follows sanctions at other schools, including Vanderbilt University and Rollins College.

De-recognition doesn’t mean the club is banned, but it does mean the affected chapters lose certain perks, which usually include funding from student-activity fees along with free or reduced-cost access to meeting rooms. With no official standing at the university, the club is left to request and rent space like any other outside group would, from the Boy Scouts to the local scrapbooking club.

In his executive order outlining the changes, CSU Chancellor Charles Reed wrote that, in accordance with the non-discrimination clause in California state law,

No campus shall recognize any fraternity, sorority, living group, honor society, or other student organization that discriminates on the basis of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability. … No campus shall recognize any fraternity, sorority, living group, honor society, or other student organization unless its membership and leadership are open to all currently enrolled students at that campus, except that a social fraternity or sorority or other university living group may impose a gender limitation …

This notable exception—that sororities and fraternities can discriminate on the basis of gender—is illustrative. The university seems to accept that the essence of a sorority and fraternity is gender, while refusing to recognize that the essence of a religious club is, well, religious belief. Just as a sorority required to admit men would no longer be a sorority, so a religious club run by non-believers would cease, by definition, to be itself.

Other schools have recognized this. For example, The Ohio State University revised its policies to permit religious clubs to impose leadership requirements “consistent with” their beliefs, and the State University of New York at Buffalo, my alma mater, reversed an earlier de-recognition decision, ruling that “it is common sense, not discrimination, for a religious group to want its leaders to agree with its core beliefs.”

Although the law clearly gives universities a choice about whether to recognize these clubs, universities would do well to weigh what their campus communities lose in de-recognizing religious groups. This decision doesn’t just hurt students of faith—InterVarsity has already announced that it is “re-creating” itself at Cal State to adapt to the new rules. The bigger loss comes from stunting pluralism on college campuses, arguably one of the places where it’s most important to create space for competing ideas.

Harvard University’s Pluralism Project writes that pluralism is “not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity … not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference” and “the encounter of commitments.” The same universities that make room for sex-segregated clubs like sororities and fraternities, honor societies centered on academic abilities, LGBQT clubs led by those who truly believe in LGBQT rights, and teams built around athletic prowess are only strengthened by allowing groups based around distinct belief systems.

As John Inazu, an associate professor of law at Washington University School of Law, wrote recently, “Pluralism rests on three interrelated aspirations: tolerance, humility, and patience.” All three of these qualities are not only compatible with higher education, but they are, in fact, essential for authentic learning:

Living well in a pluralist world does not mean a never-ending openness to any possible claim. Every one of us holds deeply entrenched beliefs that others find unpersuasive, inconsistent, or downright loopy. More pointed, every one of us holds beliefs that others find morally reprehensible. Pluralism does not impose the fiction of assuming that all ideas are equally valid or morally benign. It does mean respecting people, aiming for fair discussion, and allowing for the right to differ about serious matters.

Even in an increasingly secular culture, distinct and diverse faith communities continue to exist and thrive. Because religion plays a significant role in American public life outside of the university, it should be represented within the microcosm of educational institutions. Public universities in particular have an obligation to reflect and foster both the diversity of the students they serve and the public that pays their bills. Removing clubs that are predicated on religious practices limits students’ exposure to the diversity they will face outside academia, a diversity that is both a strength and challenge of American culture. The tolerance, humility, and patience that are needed for this kind of pluralism are ideal qualities to encourage in students, as well as all citizens. These qualities are essential for students’ “moral formation”—a concept that may seem passé in today’s culture, but has traditionally been the hallmark of higher education.

This means not shying away from difference and disagreement—even about fundamental beliefs about sensitive topics like homosexuality. Moral education is about teaching students how to think in a way that transcends sectarianism and is robust enough to accommodate opposition. Emile Durkheim, a founder of the modern field of sociology, wrote in 1925 that formal education inherently cultivates these kinds of qualities, which serves both society and the individual. The ability to navigate the tension between self-interest and the good of others—which is, coincidentally, the core challenge of religious practice—is perhaps one of the most important outcomes a college education can have.