At California Universities, Christian Groups Face ‘De-Recognition’

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship organizations in the massive, 23 campus, 450,000 student California State University system have been brought under new rules by which many of them may be “de-recognized” as official student groups. The change comes as a result of the C.S.U.’s 2011 decision to change its student club membership policies to an “all comers” policy.

Mike Uhlenkamp, C.S.U. Director of Public Affairs, explains the policy: “The idea is that if you are a member of the journalism club you cannot require your membership or leadership to be exclusively student journalists. Same with the Republican Clubs, etc.” Whatever the organization, if you want recognition by the school as an official student organization, any student must be free to attend and to lead. (The one exception is fraternities and sororities, whose membership is protected under Title IX of federal law.)

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The problem for InterVarsity groups lie in their requirement that student leaders assent to a Christian creed. Forcing student leaders to make such an assent, says Uhlenkamp, is “discriminatory against those who are not of that faith.”

Greg Jao, spokesperson for InterVarsity, expressed his disappointment with C.S.U.’s decision, which they’ve been negotiating for three years. “In general we affirm the nondiscrimination policy, we believe every student should have a safe, welcoming diverse experience on campus. So our activities are welcome to all students. But we believe a religious group should be led by members who are representative of that religion.”

Uhlenkamp points out, C.S.U. officials have suggested and will continue to suggest ways in which InterVarsity can be true to itself and maintain recognized status. “They could have a vote, require leaders to attend a minimum number of meetings, pay dues, be in good standing with the club for a specific amount of time or take a skills based test.” He also notes some C.S.U. chapters of InterVarsity have made changes and kept their recognized status.

The C.S.U.’s suggestions have not suited InterVarsity. “I’m really grateful that they’re trying to think of ways around it,” says Jao. “But what Cal State is saying is ‘Remove the overt religious beliefs from your requirements. Let’s pretend you don’t have these requirements when in fact you do.’ It’s a form of dishonesty—a terrible model for students in terms of integrity.”

InterVarsity is not being targeted exclusively; the same policy applies to every student group. When asked whether Newman clubs which have Mass on C.S.U. campuses could be de-recognized if non-Catholic attendees are asked not to receive Communion, Uhlenkamp said, “From a broad perspective, I think it would be acceptable [to deny Communion to non-Catholics]. But I’d have to take it to lawyers.”

InterVarsity and the C.S.U. differ on the tangible consequences of de-recognition. Uhlenkamp says, “De-recognized groups are welcome to participate on campus. They’re just not going to get recognition and the perks that come with that, including discounted use of facilities, faculty advisementand access to student funding.”

But InterVarsity insists this is a much bigger change than the C.S.U. is letting on. The rates to reserve rooms will effectively price them out of operating on some campuses.

And while Uhlenkamp believes that the only real question will be “where the group wants to meet and whether they want to work with the campus to find a meeting place. I can choose to live in a million dollar house or I can choose to pay less,” the reality seems to bear InterVarsity’s concerns out. At Sonoma State, where InterVarsity has operated since 1962 and has a membership of 200, the cheapest fee the group could find for its previously-free weekly meeting in a campus conference room adds up to an extraordinary $28,000 a year, plus the insurance fees that the club as de-recognized must now also front. Says InterVarsity area director Jenny Klouse, “They’re just students. We don’t even have dues because we want everyone to be able to come.” (Sonoma State confirmed these figures.)

Other de-recognized branches report potential new fees ranging from $2,500 to $22,000.

For C.S.U., the fundamental issue is California state law, which requires “full and equal access…to any program or activity” that is sponsored by the state or involves state funding. Uhlenkamp notes that C.S.U. has been “challenged on this [policy] in court previously and we’ve prevailed. So we feel very confident that the policy complies with state law and is constitutionally sound.”

But at the end of the day, says Jao, the real question is, “Is this good policy? I’m not sure I want public universities or the government to reach into the inner workings of religious groups and say this is how you have to choose leaders if you’re going to have equal access to every student group on campus.” He also notes the irony of a policy meant to stop discrimination being used against a group that is 70 percent students of color.

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