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Cal State’s Mass Derecognition of Christian Student Groups Draws Criticism from FIRE Chairman, Board Member

To close out a busy week here at FIRE, FIRE Chairman and Co-founder Harvey Silverglate has an insightful opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about the California State University System’s recent decision to withdraw recognition from the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the system’s 23 campuses, which enroll nearly 447,000 students.

As Harvey writes, Cal State’s decision to enforce a so-called “all-comers” policy—under which all student groups must accept all students as voting members and leaders, regardless of belief—is a stinging defeat for freedom of association on campus:

The new policy has insidious implications. Any student may attend IVCF meetings or participate in its activities regardless of belief. But because IVCF asks its leaders to affirm their adherence to evangelical Christian doctrine—a "belief" requirement—California state-university administrators have deemed the group discriminatory. IVCF chapters will no longer have use of certain campus facilities and benefits available to other groups. This policy guts the free association right that was enshrined in the First Amendment precisely to protect minority or unpopular views.

Harvey explains that the derecognition was made possible by the 2010 Supreme Court decision Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, and he notes that the ruling “inadvertently compromised, rather than protected, the rights of minority groups.” He explains how this is so in a powerful anecdote about a lawyer representing an LGBT group, so be sure to read the piece for yourself to see his point.

Writing for Bloomberg View on the same topic yesterday, FIRE Board of Directors member Virginia Postrel interviews a Cal State administrator and a Pepperdine University sociologist who studies the religious experiences of Asian-American students to gain a better understanding of the impact of Cal State’s decision.

Postrel learns that Cal State intends to enforce its policy strictly:

“If the chess club wants to prohibit checkers players, that would be illegal,” explains Michael Uhlenkamp, Cal State’s public affairs director.

But this misguided determination to root out “discrimination” comes at a real price for students seeking to link up with others of like mind. Sociologist Rebecca Y. Kim tells Postrel how abiding by Cal State’s all-comers policy would rob religious student groups of their importance for students who participate to connect “with people who understand what it’s like to be them”:

If the all-comers policy worked the way it sounds on paper, it would destroy the qualities that make religious fellowships valuable to students, especially ethnic minorities. “If you force them to have leaders who don’t have this distinct world view and belief system, it completely goes against the reason for their existence,” says Kim.

Uhlenkamp insists that Cal State “embrace[s] the idea of access,” and argues that the impact of the policy will be minor. A student who doesn’t share a group’s values “is likely not going to rise to a leadership position if they weren’t of a likeminded belief system.”

But even if this optimistic prediction proves true, and belief-based student groups that conform with Cal State’s all-comers policy don’t lose their unique character, those groups have still had to compromise their right to freedom of assembly just to remain on campus. Even in that best case scenario, Postrel concludes that the policy would function as “a gratuitous insult, forcing groups to deny their core values and sign symbolic statements they don’t really believe.”

Be sure to read Postrel’s article in full.

FIRE will continue to monitor freedom of assembly at Cal State and on campuses across the country. For more on the negative impact of all-comers policies, be sure to check out these recent articles from The New York Times and Christianity Today. And for more on Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, check out FIRE’s FAQ on the case.

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