Wayne State, Christian student group in court battle

Evan James Carter
The Detroit News

Wayne State University shouldn't be allowed to deny recognition to student groups because of their policies about who can serve in leadership, a Christian organization is arguing in U.S. District Court.

The university recertified the local chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in March 2018, five months after it derecognized the group, but InterVarsity's lawyers want to legally mandate how Wayne State enforces its nondiscrimination policy.

Wayne State University Old Main building in Detroit

The university has pushed back, saying that Hindu and Jewish student groups are subject to the same nondiscrimination policy that InterVarsity was originally flagged for violating in 2017.

After the Christian group sued Wayne State on March 6, 2018, the university decided it would "let common sense prevail" and allow the Christian organization to choose its own leadership, according to a university spokesman. The university recertified the group three days later, on March 9.

In a hearing before U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland in Port Huron on July 10, the nonprofit religious liberty law firm Becket, which is representing InterVarsity, argued that Wayne State's application of its nondiscrimination policy was arbitrary and unconstitutional.

"Legally Wayne State has to apply its rules fairly and across the board. The same policy that they claim prohibits InterVarsity from choosing its leadership according to religion should prohibit other groups from choosing members according to sex." said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket and InterVarsity's lead attorney on the case.

"Unless Wayne State changes its rules, InterVarsity is going to have to worry every year whether or not they will be kicked-off (campus) again," Windham said.

Wayne State has 15 fraternities, 14 sororities and multiple club sports teams that are exclusively male- and female-only groups. The university argues that exempting these types of single-sex organizations is in line with the Title IX law, which forbids gender discrimination in federally funded educational programs.

"As a matter of policy, and for obvious reasons, Wayne State does not apply the gender component of the nondiscrimination policy to club sports," Wayne State lawyers wrote in a court document filed Feb. 13, 2019. "Nor does the policy apply to fraternities or sororities, in accordance with the exclusion of these organizations from the nondiscrimination law under Title IX."

InterVarsity remains a recognized student group that is allowed to select its leaders, the university said in a statement. 

"Wayne State has taken no action to withdraw recognition from InterVarsity and the group remains welcome on our campus," the school said. "Nevertheless, InterVarsity continues to pursue litigation against the university forcing it to spend taxpayer dollars to defend the lawsuit. This is a case of the national organization trying to set a precedent."

The hearing was the first movement in the case since February, when U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney granted Wayne State's request that the case be moved from federal court in Kalamazoo in Michigan's Western District to a court in the Eastern District.

In fall 2017, Wayne State introduced an online portal where organizations applying to be certified as student groups had to upload their constitution with the university Dean of Students office. InterVarsity's constitution was flagged for requiring that those in the group's leadership be Christian. The Christian group was decertified in October 2017 after refusing to drop the leadership requirement from its bylaws.

The Christian student group continued to hold meetings on the university campus during this time, but had to pay $100 each time it reserved a room on campus since it was no longer a certified group.

After it reinstated InterVarsity, the university refunded all room reservation deposits paid by the group, the school said.