A June 9th article in the New York Times reports on an issue between evangelical student groups at Bowdoin College in Maine and the college. In fact, this is just one example in an ongoing 20+ year “battle” — I remember these same issues coming up when I was an undergraduate student.
The underlying issue, depending on who you ask, is either (a) the freedom or student organizations to choose their own leaders based on their own criteria; or (b) the principle that, on campus, student organizations (sanctioned and often supported by the school) should not be able to discriminate against anybody based on religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
[Before I offer my thoughts on the issue, some full disclosure: in college, I was an active member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at two different schools; in fact, I was a leader at both — at one, I was “president” and in the other I was a small group leader as well as a leader on the “Outreach Team”. Additionally, after graduation, I was advisor/campus minister for the Young Life chapter on campus (focused on leadership development) and was later a campus minister/pastor working on campus for three different churches — an evangelical church, a Roman Catholic Church, and the post-denominational church that I helped plant. I am also a friend of and supporter of Young Life staff, InterVarsity staff, and Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) staff. I should also add that my experience with both YL and IV were totally formative in my faith and discipleship and I am deeply thankful for both organizations.]
It is also worth noting that all of those organizations — evangelical, parachurch groups — hold a more-or-less anti-gay position. They teach that homosexuality is sinful — and that all sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage is sinful. This should not come as a surprise. While I think their rejection of monagamous, committed, life-long, Christ-centered gay relationships (gay marriage) is both morally and theologically (Biblically) wrong, it should be noted that this is the dominant historical position within Christianity.
So what do I think? Should groups like InterVarsity and Cru and others be allowed to deny membership or leadership positions to non-believers, LGBT students, or those who do not share their particular theological beliefs? My answer is OF COURSE THEY SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO DO SO!
Here is why I believe we should allow these groups to discriminate:
1. Schools (especially public schools) should not be in the business of trying to determine what is a legitimate theological belief and what is not. Groups should be allowed to self-define membership, etc.
2. The nature of the college experience is to foster discussion, celebrate real diversity (including of opinion), and to be a forum for different ideas. I think it is important that some student organization exists for all students, but not that every group must be for all students.
3. Beyond religious groups, there are many groups that may want to and benefit from similar “discrimination”: a Rape Survivors Group, a Transgender Support Group, certain cultural/ethnic student groups, groups based on common major or interest or skill set, political groups, etc, etc.
4. People vote with their feet — students are free to not join these groups, to protest these groups or to start their own groups. (For the record, I would love to see a progressive evangelical parachurch presence on campus… anyone what to pursue that idea?)
5. The campus community is best served by an openness to ideas — even ideas we don’t like or agree with — as opposed to a controlled and limited approach.
So ultimately I believe that these groups — often affiliated with national organizations — should be allowed to choose their own leadership based on their own criterion.
All of that said, the other piece of the puzzle has to do with funding. Often student organizations are funded by student fees, either distributed by the school directly or via some form of student activity board or student council or student government. I remember as an undergrad being involved with some of the discussions about how the money should be distributed. Should an organization that has 200 members get the same amount as an organization that has 6 members? Should all ethnic/cultural groups get the same funding? And what about religious groups? And especially religious groups that may discriminate?
I think it is a bad idea for the university/college administration to deny funding or access to campus facilities to these groups. However, if through the democratic process of student government, students choose to defund these groups, then that is within the rights of the student body — and a lesson in democracy, either good or bad (depending on your perspective). And while I believe these evangelical religious groups have a right to meet, gather, worship, pray, choose their own leaders, etc, that is not the same thing as saying they have a right to funding, access to campus facilities, etc. They can meet off campus in a church or coffee shop, in a dorm room, etc.
So there are some definite complicated issues here. And while you might expect me to come down on the side of inclusion and being anti-discrimination, I think that the benefit of an open forum where these groups exist and are part of the discussion/community/etc, far out-weighs any downside.