ANN ARBOR, Mich. — As a Christian group at the University of Michigan enjoys reinstatement after being told its policies were discriminatory, a national varsity leader hopes the controversy will lead to a positive impact.
“As a university, they're struggling with how to create a tolerant and diverse environment. They don’t know how to deal with religion well, because religion is often a point of disagreement,” Greg Jao, a national field director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, told EWTN News Feb. 5.
“I think what happens in the university gets played out nationally in the next 5-10 years,” he said.
The University of Michigan had initially refused to renew its recognition for an Asian student chapter of the national non-denominational Christian student group. Initial reports said the group violated the university’s non-discrimination policy by requiring student leaders to affirm a statement of Christian belief and conduct.
In a Feb. 1 statement, the university said the group missed a deadline to submit its constitution.
However, Jao said the group didn’t submit a constitution because “they chose not to accept it.” He said the chapter’s submission may have been delayed a week or two, which created “greater scrutiny” for them.
Meetings with the university administration focused on officials’ view that its statement of belief was discriminatory, he said. “The key issue is whether a religious group may use religious criteria to select their leaders.”
In a Feb. 4 meeting, however, the chapter was reinstated.
Jao said the Asian InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter is “grateful” for the reinstatement, but he reported that this reinstatement was based on officials making an exception to the policy rather than an amendment to the policy. This leaves the group “exposed” to a complaint because it is in technical violation of a rule.
“The university expressed some hesitation, but we’re trying to stay engaged with them,” Jao said, adding that the group is encouraged the university has taken the step towards recognition.
He said InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has recommended the university follow policies like those at Ohio State University, the University of Florida and the University of Texas-Austin. These institutions, he said, “have recognized that to pursue a truly diverse, tolerant campus environment, you have to give space for religious groups.”
To Jao’s knowledge, the policy has not yet affected other campus religious groups. However, he believes some of them could be implicated in a violation of university policy.
The student leader noted that the status of religious groups on university campuses is “an ongoing issue.”
He pointed to a policy at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee which in 2012 forced out 14 religious groups, including Vandy Catholic, because they would not agree to change their requirements that student leaders share their beliefs. The groups are now meeting off-campus and have lost many privileges other student groups have.
In January, a committee at Tufts University ruled that the student government was right to de-recognize a religious group based on its existing policy, but the committee then officially amended the policy to allow religious groups to use religious criteria.
“A non-discrimination policy which actually discriminates against religious groups being religious didn’t work either,” Jao said.
“I’m hopeful that between Michigan and Tufts, we’re charting a path for universities that rethink the role of religion in society,” he said.
“At the university we’re actually setting the groundwork for what happens in our wider culture. The students on the university campus today will be the leaders of our government tomorrow,” he added.
“We’re hopeful that if we work out these issues on our campus, we’re dealing with the vanguard of what’s happening in our culture.”