A student judiciary at the State University of New York at Buffalo has given InterVarsity Christian Fellowship reason to hope it might regain its official status just in time for the start of the school year.
After reviewing the student senate's decision to revoke InterVarsity's recognition as an official student group, the Student Wide Judiciary ruled that the group should be reinstated. Although the judiciary has the right to review the senate's decision, it does not have the power to restore InterVarsity's official status. The group must wait until the senate's first meeting of the school year to find out whether senators will abide by the judiciary's decision.
SUNY Buffalo's student-led senate voted to revoke InterVarsity's official status in late April after learning that a student felt pressured to resign from his position as the group's treasurer. Steven Jackson, who also held a seat on the Student Association Senate, initially defended InterVarsity but later encouraged his fellow senators to penalize the group. Jackson stepped down from his leadership position with InterVarsity after announcing he was gay.
Jackson and other student senators insisted that InterVarsity's leadership requirements violated the school's nondiscrimination policy. InterVarsity requires leaders at all chapters to affirm a doctrinal basis statement that outlines the group's orthodox Christian beliefs. A lawyer advising the senate at one point told the students a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision gave the school the right to forbid faith-based requirements for student group leaders.
But after reviewing the case, the school's student judiciary ruled that the senate failed to make a distinction between a group's leaders and its members. InterVarsity chapters are open to all students for membership.
"It is common sense, not discrimination, for a religious group to want its leaders to agree with its core beliefs," the ruling states.
Although the InterVarsity chapter hasn't been restored yet, the judiciary's ruling offers encouragement, said Alec Hill, the national organization's president.
"We're excited about the ruling and now we're just waiting to see what the next step in the process will be," he said. "The ability of any group to choose its leaders is what's at stake here."
Officials at SUNY Buffalo said on Wednesday afternoon that they planned to review the judiciary's decision to determine whether it violates the school's nondiscrimination policy.
InterVarsity is one of several Christian groups operating on secular campuses that has faced accusations of discrimination over leadership requirements. In January, Vanderbilt University, a private school in Nashville, Tenn., announced its intention to establish an "all-comers" policy, expressly forbidding religious groups from selecting both members and leaders based on common beliefs. Fifteen Christian groups eventually decided to operate as unofficial organizations rather than abide by the school's policy.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in CLS v. Martinez that public schools could adopt what it termed an "all-comers" policy, but it did not determine whether such a policy could be adopted with exceptions or applied only to religious groups. At Vanderbilt, the school's fraternities and sororities, which discriminate on the basis of sex, are exempt from the nondiscrimination policy. San Diego State University adopted a similar policy and barred two Christian groups from campus over their faith requirements. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the policy in ADX v. Reed. When the Supreme Court declined to review the case earlier this year, Christian groups speculated other schools might follow SDSU's lead. They point to Vanderbilt as the beginning of a trend.
But most public universities have hesitated to take a step likely to lead to legal action. Even after the SUNY Buffalo chapter's suspension, the group's leaders said they remained hopeful they could resolve the issue without taking it to court. Every time a public university has accused InterVarsity of discrimination, the group's attorneys have persuaded administrators to drop the case.
Other public universities, including the University of Alabama, the University of California at Los Angeles and Virginia Tech, have responded to requests from the Alliance Defending Freedom to alter or clarify policies that might be used to keep religious groups from picking leaders who share their faith.
Often student-led bodies take a more aggressive stance against groups like InterVarsity, and sometimes administrators step in to the groups' defense, Hill said. But there's no rule of thumb about how administrators will respond in this case, he said.
"This is a time of disequilibrium," he said. "This is a public policy issue that's pretty volatile right now."