Campus Christian Group WINS Religious Liberty Case Against Wayne State

P. Gardner Goldsmith | April 7, 2021
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A student Christian group located at Wayne State University, in Detroit, MI, on April 5 won a big victory in Federal District Court.

It seems the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group was discriminated against because they (gasp!) only allow Christians to accept leadership roles in the Christian group.

It's a case that adds new weight to the question: “How can 'inclusive' government schools claim to 'include' all interest groups, if, by their nature, these groups are distinct, specifically because of their various interests?” And it's a story that elicits keen interest.

Federal District Court Judge Robert H. Cleland wrote the opinion in the case, and pulled no punches in affirming the right of the Wayne State InterVarsity Fellowship’s campus chapter to gather at self-proclaimed “inclusive” Wayne State.

As Bob Adelman reports for The New American, the ruling affirms: 

…charges that Wayne State University’s board members and administrators intentionally discriminated against InterVarsity Fellowship’s campus chapter…

This, as Adelman also notes, occurring at a tax-funded school that heralds itself as a bastion of “inclusiveness” – no surprise. As he cites, Wayne State explicitly promotes its “anti-discrimination” policy:

[Wayne State] embraces all persons regardless of race, color, sex (including gender identity), national origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, familial status, marital status, height, weight, disability, or veteran status and expressly forbids sexual harassment and discrimination in hiring, terms of employment, tenure, promotion, placement and discharge of employees, admission, training and treatment of students, extracurricular activities, the use of University services, facilities, and the awarding of contracts.

But, this presents the eternal postmodernist, identity politics, feedback-loop question:

How does a government-system maintain “inclusiveness” of all interest groups, if interest groups are, by their nature, composed of people who want to gather specifically because of their disparate interests?

In a market, separated from the government, this isn’t a problem, because everything is predicated on free will and the freedom to associate, so a vast and true rainbow of choices appears.

But in a government system, all kinds of problems arise, especially if the supposedly “inclusive” government agents don’t like the ideals of certain groups meeting on the tax-supported campus.

Thus, as Adelman observes:

InterVarsity Fellowship/USA (IVF) has more than 600 chapters on college campuses in the United States and its chapter at Detroit’s Wayne State University (WSU) has been present there for 75 years… But when board member Ricardo Villarosa decided to stretch the school’s anti-discrimination policy in order to prevent the group from having its usual access to campus facilities and events, the chapter enlisted the assistance of the Becket Fund and filed a discrimination lawsuit.

And Judge Cleland agreed with InterVarsity Fellowship/USA. In fact, in his written opinion, he explicitly noted the absurdity of the Wayne State position in blocking the InterVarsity chapter. 

Writes Adelman:

The problem? The chapter only allows Christians to accept leadership roles in the chapter! As Judge Cleland aptly noted, this ‘small group of Christians … were denied [campus benefits] because they require their Christian leaders to be … Christian.’

And the judge ruled that the tax-funded university trampled the group members’ rights, breaching the Constitution:

Defendants (Wayne State) also violated the Establishment Clause [First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, to wit: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’

Of course, perspicacious readers will note that the judge isn’t exactly correct here.

Related: Pope Exhibits Shocking Ignorance of Economics and Logic: Claims 'Market Forces' Fail To Provide 'Social Benefits'

The First Amendment applies only to Congress, not the State of Michigan or any other state or locality. As much as proponents (author included) of free speech might dislike states and localities creating speech laws or backing certain kinds of religious practices, etc., the so-called rule book of the US Constitution specifically denotes CONGRESS in its prohibition in the First Amendment.

The key would be to look at the Michigan State Constitution, and that constitution gives us conflicting signals.

On the one hand, Article One, Section 4 of the MI Constitution supposedly protects the liberty to worship. But it also specifically prohibits the state from compelling people to fund any religion or place of worship. It reads:

Every person shall be at liberty to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience. No person shall be compelled to attend, or, against his consent, to contribute to the erection or support of any place of religious worship, or to pay tithes, taxes or other rates for the support of any minister of the gospel or teacher of religion. No money shall be appropriated or drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious sect or society, theological or religious seminary; nor shall property belonging to the state be appropriated for any such purpose. The civil and political rights, privileges and capacities of no person shall be diminished or enlarged on account of his religious belief.

So a clear reading of the Michigan Constitution informs observers that a state-supported university can’t allow any kind of religious organization on any publically supported land.

This reveals the deeper problem, the problem of a state-funded university.

On the surface, the matter appears to be unbalanced treatment of different religiously-based groups. For example, Adelman notes Wayne State’s evident double-standards in trying to ban the Christian group while allowing others that operate in similar fashions:

  1. Club sports teams are free to exclude members who did not fall within their prescribed sex or gender identity categories;
  2. Greek letter fraternities and sororities were allowed to exclude members and leaders based on their sex and gender;
  3. The Iraqi Student Organization required that its leaders be “dedicated Iraqi students”;
  4. The Student Veterans Organization limited its membership and leadership positions to veterans, their dependents, and ROTC members;
  5. The Eternal Message association mandated that is leaders ‘follow its mission’ to ‘introduce people to Islam’

As a result, one could justifiably see these differing standards as the problem and call for inclusion of Christians, and of all groups.

But the conflict with the state constitution noted above sheds light on the true problem. Not only does the Michigan Constitution appear to prohibit state-backed colleges from allowing religious worship on state-funded land, the very process of state funding of colleges themselves appears to conflict with the MI constitutional prohibition, “No money shall be appropriated or drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious sect or society.”

This could prohibit any allowance of religious practice on any space supported by tax money; it could prohibit any exposure of any religious tenets to students because said exposure – even if it is kept “neutral” -- could be seen as expanding awareness of the sect, which could be seen as state cash benefitting the sect in their outreach efforts.

If this all appears very messy, it is, and the source of the mess is the involvement of government. As noted earlier, while government casts a wide net to take money, it is exclusionary when doling out “gifts.” This means that, by its nature, government will not treat people equally, and taxpayers will be forced to pay for things they find fundamentally unethical.

The problem is the unethical nature of the government, itself, and of its political claims to the fruits of our neighbors’ earnings.

While this Federal District Court case is a win for a group of dedicated Christians, the battle to recognize real freedom of conscience continues, and will continue as long as government claims the power to take the fruits of our labor.