Judge finds Wayne State violated rights of student religious group

The Detroit News

A federal judge has ruled that Wayne State University discriminated against a Christian student group by denying it official recognition because it requires its leaders to be Christians.

In fall 2017, Wayne State flagged InterVarsity's constitution 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 university restored recognition in 2018.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland issued a permanent injunction requiring the university to change its rules and recognize the leaders of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a religious outreach and ministry group that is active on more than 600 college campuses across America.

The group requires that its leaders exemplify "Christ-like conduct," defend Christianity as well as lead students and members in weekly prayer, worship and Bible studies. 

"The uncontested facts demonstrate that defendants violated plaintiffs’ rights to internal management, free speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and free exercise as a matter of law," Cleland said in the ruling.

Wayne State also violated the establishment clause of the Constitution, he said, which forbids giving preference to or forcing belief in any one religion, said Cleland, who was appointed by former President George H.W. Bush. 

The group was given a symbolic $1 in damages in the lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of Michigan U.S. District Court.

In a statement Monday,  Wayne State University said the ruling was not unexpected and officials are reviewing it.

"Unfortunately, despite the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship being granted everything it requested in a timely manner, it continued to pursue litigation, forcing the university to spend time and taxpayer dollars in an unnecessary lawsuit," the university said.

"Now, two years later, the judge has awarded $1 in nominal damages, as well as the opportunity for InterVarsity to continue the lawsuit in pursuit of compensatory damages, despite having been restored to their previous status in March of 2018."

Members of the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night.

Wayne State's coordinator of student life had initially rejected InterVarsity's recognition for violating the university's nondiscrimination policy. The Christian student group continued to hold meetings on the university campus during that time, but had to pay $100 each time it reserved a room on campus since it was no longer a certified group.

The university recertified the local chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in March 2018, five months after it decided against recognizing the group. But InterVarsity's lawyers pursued a lawsuit anyway in a bid to challenge how Wayne State enforces its nondiscrimination policy.

Wayne State had argued that Hindu and Jewish student groups are subject to the same nondiscrimination policy that InterVarsity was originally flagged for violating in 2017.

“The law is crystal clear: Universities can’t kick religious student groups off campus just because they choose leaders who share their faith,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

“The court’s common-sense ruling today means that InterVarsity must be treated fairly, just as it had been for 75 years at Wayne State, and now can continue its good work serving a diverse campus community.” 

In his ruling Monday, Cleland said the First Amendment provides religious organizations the right to select their own ministers. 

The judge also said "the record shows that the effect of plaintiffs’ delisting on its organization, and its ability to carry out its mission of ministering the Christian faith on Wayne State’s campus, was significant. Plaintiffs could no longer obtain free and low-cost meeting spaces on campus, and they were relegated to less attractive spaces when any spaces were available."

The university, Cleland wrote, "cannot limit access to public forums for 'certain points of view,' while permitting others to engage in the same expressive activity to offer different views. Yet, as demonstrated by the facial reading of defendants’ non-discrimination policy and in the policy’s application, defendants have barred plaintiffs from selecting leaders that share its Christian views while allowing other groups to engage in similar form of leadership selection. This divergent treatment cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny."

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, a university spokesman previously told The Detroit News. The university recertified the group three days later, on March 9.

In a hearing before Cleland in Port Huron in July 2019, Becket 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," Windham had argued. 

"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 fraternities, sororities and 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."