A federal judge Monday ordered Wayne State University to change its nondiscrimination policy, which clearly discriminated against a Christian student group. It’s encouraging to see the court stand up for religious liberty. The university must also uphold the rights of all students.
In retooling its policy, Wayne State must not prevent student groups from picking leaders who align with the mission and aims of those organizations under the guise of affirmative action and equal opportunity.
The legal fight started when the public university in 2017 excluded InterVarsity, a Christian organization, for selecting leaders who professed religious beliefs in line with its mission. Wayne State argued the requirements to exemplify “Christ-like conduct” violated the university’s non-discrimination policy, even though other student groups are allowed to select leaders based on sex, gender identity and other factors.
The court ruled Wayne State’s actions were “obviously odious to the Constitution” and violated InterVarsity’s rights to internal management, free speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and free exercise.
“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,” federal Judge Robert H. Cleland wrote in Monday’s ruling.
Because InterVarsity required its leaders to believe the same things the organization has believed during the 75 years it has been on campus, the university forced the group to pay $100 to rent a room for a Bible study and forced it away from other student groups.
Adding insult to injury, Wayne State clearly did not apply the policy across the board. There are many other groups that require leaders to profess specific beliefs or have other characteristics such as race or gender to be a leader in the group.
The university did not exclude those groups, and instead singled out InterVarsity.
“Wayne State has allowed other groups to break the rules,” says Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, a nonprofit law firm representing InterVarsity. “The Muslim and Catholic groups were allowed to ask their leaders to be Muslim and Catholic. Fraternities and sororities selected leaders based on sex. But there’s no reason to do that and exclude InterVarsity.”
Student groups should be free to select whomever they want as leaders based on their beliefs and mission statements.
After Monday’s ruling, Wayne State defended its actions.
“Unfortunately, despite the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship being granted everything it requested in a timely manner, it continued to pursue litigation, forcing the university to spend time and taxpayer dollars in an unnecessary lawsuit,” spokesman Matt Lockwood said in a statement.
While it’s true the university made an exception for InterVarsity soon after the lawsuit was first filed in 2018, it never changed its non-discrimination policy and continued to declare InterVarsity was in violation of it.
Now, the court has made it clear Wayne State must change its policy to protect the freedom of student groups and allow all students — including Christians — to exercise their constitutional rights on campus.