Christian Group at Sonoma State Runs Afoul of Anti-discrimination Policy

A newly enforced anti-discrimination policy at Sonoma State University has caused a Christian organization to lose its campus recognition and potentially thousands of dollars that come with being an officially sanctioned club.

The InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a national student organization that has operated at SSU since 1962, was stripped of its campus recognition at the beginning of this school year as the California State University system began enforcing a three-year-old policy that prevents clubs from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation or disability.

InterVarsity accepts all members, but leaders of the group must be Christian and agree with doctrinal beliefs, said Jenny Klouse, the group’s area director.

“We agree with CSU that anyone can become a member,” she said. “Where we differ is at the leadership level. As a religious organization, it is important that our leaders have that faith, otherwise we’d cease to be a group founded on faith.”

The policy applies to some 160 organizations and clubs at SSU, said Heather Howard Martin, director of the Center for Student Leadership, Involvement and Service. Only fraternities and sororities are granted an exemption, in their case for gender.

All other student groups have complied with the policy, except the 190-member InterVarsity and the much smaller Christian group Athletes in Action, Howard Martin said. This includes other religious groups of Catholic, Jewish and Baha’i students.

“InterVarsity requires its leaders to sign a statement affirming their faith,” she said. “Groups can’t have requirements that limit the organization’s leaders based on faith.”

Enforcement of the anti-discrimination policy comes in the wake of a campus controversy last year, when a university employee asked a student, who was giving campus tours to prospective students, to remove a cross on a necklace she was wearing. The university, which was widely criticized after the incident, later apologized to the student.

Howard Martin said SSU’s latest action is meant to comply with an executive order from the chancellor of the CSU system.

“CSU has an all-comers policy of non-discrimination,” she said.

InterVarsity operates on 616 campuses nationally, including many public universities, and has only run into this issue at CSU, according to Greg Jao, InterVarsity’s national field director. Public institutions such as the Ohio State University, the University of Texas and the University of Florida have non-discrimination policies for campus organizations, but have exemptions for leaders of religious clubs such as InterVarsity, he said.

“The leaders should reflect the values of the group,” he said. “Groups should be able to say ‘We have been founded for a purpose.’ ”

Jao said InterVarsity will continue to work with the university, and is seeking an amendment to the policy that includes an exemption for leaders of religious organizations.

InterVarsity’s refusal to change its constitution to comply with the policy means it could lose out on access to student activity fees, which amount to a few thousand dollars per year, Klouse said. More costly, the group also can no longer reserve campus meeting space for free and can’t set up recruitment booths at university events.

The organization still meets on campus, at a cost of $1,000 per week, Klouse said. Students hold fundraisers to help pay for on-campus activities, service projects, leadership retreats and Bible study groups, and the national InterVarsity organization is helping with costs, she said.

Without booths at university events, the organization has had to get creative with recruitment, using social media and even guerrilla marketing to spread its message. At the school’s first event of the year, the Big Nite welcome back festival, InterVarsity members walked around with mobile banner stands — backpacks with signs attached to poles meant to spark conversations with other students.

Jenna Lehman, an InterVarsity team leader, said the techniques have actually helped with recruitment.

“It was good publicity,” she said.

“Our outreach is a little different this year, but we’ve been pretty present on campus. We’ve learned to adjust, and people are responding well. We are going to continue doing what we were called to do, which is spreading God’s message.”