WASHINGTON – A federal court just ruled against Wayne State University, finding that it discriminated against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a religious student club, when it kicked the group off campus for requiring its leaders to be Christians. As the court stated, at Wayne State, “[s]tudent groups were permitted to restrict leadership based on sex, gender identity, political partisanship, ideology, creed, ethnicity, and even GPA and physical attractiveness.” However, religious groups were not allowed to require that leaders share any of a group’s religious beliefs and at Wayne State, it was a “small group of Christians, who were denied [student organization] benefits because they require their Christian leaders to be . . . Christian.” The court concluded that Wayne State’s actions to force religious groups to accept leaders “who may be hostile to [their] religious tenets” were obviously wrong and “strike at the heart” of the First Amendment: “No religious group can constitutionally be made an outsider, excluded from equal access to public or university life, simply because it insists on religious leaders who believe in its cause.” Because Wayne State’s actions were “obviously odious to the Constitution,” the court held Wayne State officials personally liable for violating the rights of Wayne State’s religious students.
“The law is crystal clear: universities can’t kick religious student groups off campus just because they choose leaders who share their faith,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “The court’s common-sense ruling today means that InterVarsity must be treated fairly, just as it had been for 75 years at Wayne State, and now can continue its good work serving a diverse campus community.”
InterVarsity’s student group had been a part of Wayne State for three-quarters of a century, holding Bible studies and providing a place for community discussion. InterVarsity is open to all students, but, like many other student groups, it requires its student leaders to adhere to its mission and purpose. The university never had a problem with their policy until 2017 when, during a routine club membership reapplication process, Wayne State told InterVarsity that asking its leaders to share its faith was “discriminatory” and deregistered the group.
But the court said Wayne State had things backward—it was the school that had discriminated against the small student group: “Disparate and discriminatory treatment of religious groups due to their religious character violates the Free Exercise Clause.” In fact, Wayne State’s attempt to control a religious group’s leadership selection was “categorically barred by the Constitution.” And the law on this point was so clear that the court held that Wayne State officials are personally liable for their actions.
In 2018, Becket sued Wayne State on InterVarsity’s behalf, since the group had been excluded. Wayne State relented and let InterVarsity back onto its campus but argued that it still had the right to remove the group later. Today’s ruling safeguards InterVarsity and sends a clear message that accommodation, not discrimination, is the best policy.
For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.