Earlier this month the California State University System "de-recognized" 23 campus chapters of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). This decision stems from a December 2011 chancellor's executive order stating that "No campus shall recognize any . . . student organization unless its membership and leadership are open to all currently enrolled students."
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.
It is obvious why IVCF would want to restrict leadership to true believers. It would be anomalous for a conventional religious group of any kind to open its top leadership to, say, atheists who would want to change the group's beliefs and activities. The pope has to be Catholic, after all. ...
Given the heat that surrounds discussion of gay marriage and abortion, out-of-the-ordinary disruptive tactics—by either side against the other's organizations—are a realistic concern. This is one reason why in an earlier era beleaguered minority groups like the NAACP and gay-rights groups were most in need of, and usually received, official protection from those who would undermine them.
This seems obvious to me, but it somehow escapes university administrators.
Student religious organizations engage principally in a variety of activities that go to the heart of religious exercise: evangelism, bible study, fellowship, and the like. The ability to discriminate in choosing the members who participate in these activities, and especially the leaders who organize them, is an integral aspect of free exercise. As Justice Brennan observed:
[A religious] community represents an ongoing tradition of shared beliefs, an organic entity not reducible to a mere aggregation of individuals. Determining that certain activities are in furtherance of an organization's religious mission, and that only those committed to that mission should conduct them, is thus a means by which a religious community defines itself. Solicitude for a church's ability to do so reflects the idea that furtherance of the autonomy of religious organizations often furthers individual religious freedoms as well. Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Amos, 483 U.S. 327, 342, 107 S. Ct. 2862, 2871 (1987) (Brennan, J., concurring).
Accordingly, virtually no one disputes that a Protestant church could refuse to hire a Muslim as its minister. But permitting student religious organizations to exclude atheists and adherents to other religions from membership and leadership is not enough. If the organization is to further its religious mission, it must be able to exclude all who do not share its members' beliefs.
You might argue that there's a difference between a student religious organization and a church, but that's a difference in degree and not in kind.
While not true churches, student religious organizations engage in worship and various other activities directly related to the religious life. The practice of meeting regularly in small Bible-study groups, which is typical of student religious groups, is one of the hallmarks of Christian worship. Larger group meetings for prayer, song, and the giving of testimonies, which are also commonplace, differ little from a church meeting. Evangelism, the proclamation of the Christian message of salvation through Christ, is an important part of the activities of student religious groups, and is a central aspect of the Christian way of life. Even the various social services and charitable activities of student religious groups are a core part of the way in which the group members exercise their religious beliefs, because social service is both “evidence of one's faith and a preparation for the proclamation of the gospel. The preevangelism of works of mercy may be just as important as preaching itself in bringing people into the kingdom of God.”
In sum, if there is a wall between church and state, the wall exists to protect the church from the state at least as much as to protect the state from the church. The same logic applies to a student religious organization's choice of its volunteer leaders and, for that matter, to its choice of members. In either setting, the very existence of the religious organization is tied up in the selection of those who teach its message and practice its doctrines. Once the state begins interfering with those decisions, the ability to exercise one's religious beliefs freely is fundamentally undermined.