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Hot on Campus | February 3, 2012

SUNY Buffalo demands InterVarsity revise constitution

Religious freedom

Christian group says it will not drop requirement that leaders agree to its statement of faith

A view of south campus at the State University of New York at Buffalo (Photo courtesy of SUNY Buffalo)

The InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter at the State University of New York at Buffalo has three weeks to come into compliance with the school's nondiscrimination policy or risk losing its status as an official campus group.

A committee formed to investigate allegations of discrimination announced Sunday that InterVarsity's constitution, which includes a clause requiring leaders to agree with a statement of faith, violates school policy. The Student Association Senate gave the group until Feb. 25 to submit a revised constitution, something it does not intend to do, said Jim Lundgren, director of InterVarsity's collegiate ministries.

"Our plan is to submit a constitution that continues with the requirement that leaders are in agreement with our doctrinal and purpose statements," he said. "We've been told that won't be acceptable, but we don't want to assume what they'll do."

School officials would not comment on the situation, except to restate the deadline set by the Senate.

The student-led governing board put InterVarsity on suspension in December, after someone complained that one of the group's leaders felt pressured to resign his position because he was gay. Senate members voted to lift the suspension temporarily so that the group could meet to revise its constitution, approving at the same time a new fiscal suspension that prevents InterVarsity from spending any of its $6,000 student activity fee budget.

The University at Buffalo is the second college in the last two weeks to tell an InterVarsity chapter to revise its constitution or lose the right to operate on campus. Last week, Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos reiterated his intention to enforce the school's revised nondiscrimination policy, which no longer grants religious groups the right to require elected leaders to share their beliefs. Four campus Christian organizations, including InterVarsity's Graduate Christian Fellowship, have until mid April to submit new constitutions that comply with Vanderbilt's policy.

InterVarsity's only option at Vanderbilt, a private institution, is to lobby administrators to change their position. But at Buffalo, a state school, the group could file suit over a violation of its constitutional rights.

A lawyer advising the Senate told the students that InterVarsity could not, under the U.S. Constitution, require its leaders to agree to any statement of faith or beliefs. But the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on campus religious groups - CLS v. Martinez - only forbade statement of faith requirements if a school had an "all-comers" policy, which would require all groups to be open to all people.

Another case out of California could have more bearing on the situation at Buffalo. In ADX v. Reed, lawyers for Christian sorority Alpha Delta Chi claim that San Diego State University violated the group's religious freedom by denying it the right to select leaders based on belief when other student groups were allowed to limit membership based on criteria like sex or political affiliation. The Alliance Defense Fund, which lost the case at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asked the Supreme Court in December to hear the case.

As it has in the past, InterVarsity will attempt to work with school officials to resolve the problem, Lundgren said. If that doesn't work and the Senate votes to revoke the group's status as an official student organization, Lundgren said InterVarsity would reevaluate its strategy: "We are willing to do a lawsuit when that becomes a crucial step in the process."