Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Does Religious Diversity Count?

Stephen V. Monsma


By Stephen V. Monsma

September 29, 2014


California State University (CSU) recently withdrew official recognition from the evangelical student organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, on all twenty-three of its campuses.

InterVarsity chapters welcome all students as members, but have a policy that their student leaders must adhere to the basic beliefs of traditional, historic Christianity. InterVarsity’s derecognition means it will no longer have free or discounted access to university rooms for its meetings or other events, it cannot participate in student orientation fairs, and it must work under the onus of an organization that the university has decreed “discriminates” and is unworthy of university recognition. The end result, in the words of a Federal Court of Appeals judge in a similar case at San Diego State University, is “to marginalize in the life of the institution those activities, practices and discourses that are religiously based.”

Anyone committed to religious freedom and the freedom of public discourse should be deeply concerned with this development.  

The situation goes back to 2011, when the Chancellor of the California State University issued an executive order prohibiting recognized student organizations from discriminating against members or leaders based on “race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability.” (An exemption was made for distinctions based on gender for fraternities and sororities.) After a one-year grace period during the 2013-14 academic year, the executive order is now being enforced. 

In justifying the InterVarsity chapters’ derecognition, a university official declared “Our entire purpose is education. This is when our students are supposed to be exposed to new ideas, especially those that are in conflict.” Exactly. But in the upside-down, Alice-in-Wonderland world of the CSU, reducing the diversity of on-campus religious student organizations somehow will increase students’ “exposure to new ideas, especially those that are in conflict.” 

Promoting diversity on university campuses means more than having isolated individuals from disadvantaged or under-represented groups on campus. They need to be able to meet together to share experiences, find mutual support, develop ideas, and speak to the larger university community and participate in its exchange of ideas. Thus a healthy university campus will be marked by vegan clubs, LGBT rights organizations, Republican and Democratic organizations, among others. But for this to occur, student organizations need to have leaders who are committed to the beliefs and purposes around which the groups have come together. It would be destructive of a vegan club to be led by someone whose favorite meal is a Big-Mac, of a LGBT organization to be led by someone opposed to same-sex marriage, or of a Democratic club to be led by a Republican. It would be equally destructive for an evangelical InterVarsity chapter to be led by persons who do not share its religious beliefs and purposes.

CSU’s new policy seems so strange and out of step with the concept of the free exchange of ideas on a university campus that one wonders if there are other forces or assumptions that have led to this decision. I believe there are. Two factors are especially important, and until we identify and confront them, situations similar to this one at the CSU are likely to continue and even increase. 

One factor is the indiscriminate use of the term “discrimination.” One of the great public policy successes in the modern era has been the use of law to outlaw discrimination against groups that historically have been marginalized in society; African Americans, women, religious minorities, and the disabled have legal protections that they did not have fifty or sixty years ago. Hardly anyone disputes the justice and public benefit of these nondiscrimination laws. But now the tendency is to apply nondiscrimination standards regardless of whether they fit the situation. Discrimination is bad; nondiscrimination is good. End of discussion.

So, one suspects that when CSU’s chancellor listed religion along with ten other categories of persons that could not be discriminated against by student organizations, he may not have thought through the implications for religious student organizations. In the rush to send off-campus all student organizations that “discriminate,” the special case posed by religious student organizations—and especially those from traditions with clear standards of belief and behavior—may never have been considered. 

Other universities have done better, For example, Ohio State University has handled the issue of on-campus recognition of religiously based student organizations in an appropriate manner. It has made the following provision: “A student organization formed to foster or affirm the sincerely held religious beliefs of its members may adopt eligibility criteria for its Student Officers that are consistent with those beliefs.”   

The second factor is that there may be a bias against religious traditions with clear doctrinal or behavioral standards—and especially towards evangelicals. A recent nationwide study of college and university faculty by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research found that of all religious groups, evangelicals elicited the most negative feelings by faculty members. It reported that “53% [of faculty] said that they have cool/unfavorable feelings toward Evangelical Christians.  Faculty feelings about Evangelicals are significantly cooler than any other religious group .  .  . ”  

This suggests there may be a mindset that believes evangelicals have little to offer to the exchange of ideas on a university campus. Administrators linking evangelical students with fundamentalism and a reputation for highly conservative politics may find it easier to dismiss evangelicals and their student organizations as rooted in unthinking prejudices and anti-intellectualism. From this perspective, nothing is lost by their being drummed off university campuses.

Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith college in Massachusetts, recently wrote: “Fundamental to the mission of colleges and universities is the promotion of diverse opinion and vigorous debate for all constituencies: faculty, staff, alumni, and especially students.” This ideal has been diminished on the California State University campuses by its recent actions.


-   Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College and Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University. 


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”