Federal District Court Rules Against Wayne State University And In Favor Of Religious Liberty And Free Speech

Plaintiffs InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Wayne State Chapter, (“Intervarsity”) has for 75 years operated a Christian student organization on the campus of Wayne State University, but in 2017 was denied continued official recognition or registration as a legitimate student group. Why? Because Intervarsity’s leadership standards ran afoul of the college’s “non- discrimination policy” in requiring that its faith leaders profess to be faithful.

…Discovery is complete, and Defendants have moved for summary judgment. (ECF No. 45.) Plaintiffs have moved for partial summary judgment and for a permanent injunction. (ECF No. 47.) For the reasons provided below, the court will grant Plaintiffs’ motion and grant in part and deny in part Defendants’ motion.

…The professed purpose of Plaintiffs’ organization is to “establish and advance . . . communities of students and faculty who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord.” (Id.) Plaintiffs’ members meet weekly for services and bible study; they also run outreach programs and prayer vigils, and host campus conferences. (Id., PageID.2713.)
Plaintiffs impose certain limitations on which students can become leaders of the campus group. Students seeking leadership positions must agree with Plaintiffs’ “Doctrine and Purpose Statements,” “exemplify Christ-like character, conduct and leadership,” and describe their Christian beliefs. (Id.; ECF No. 47-48, PageID.2310.) Prospective leaders of the group are given training in preparation “for serious spiritual responsibilities.” (ECF No. 47-48, PageID.2312; ECF No. 59, PageID.2714-15.) They must undergo an apprenticeship period where the students “work with InterVarsity ministry staff to develop their skills and prepare to lead Bible studies and provide religious teaching and spiritual guidance to other members.” (ECF No. 47-48, PageID.2299; ECF No. 59, PageID.2714-15.) Group leaders, also called “Christian Leaders,” lead students and members in weekly prayer, Bible studies, and worship. (ECF No. 47-48, PageID.2299; ECF No. 59, PageID.2714-15.) The leaders organize and lead other spiritual activities on campus, such as outreach events, prayer vigils, and religious counsel for individual students. (ECF No. 47-48, PageID.2301; ECF No. 59, PageID.2716.)

…Plaintiffs’ chapter president submitted the InterVarsity constitution to Wayne State in March 2017. (ECF No. 59, PageID.2725.) The constitution was not materially different from previous InterVarsity constitutions, or constitutions InterVarsity used at other public universities such as the University of Michigan and Central Michigan University. (Id., PageID.2725-26.) It allowed all students to join the group as members, but leadership positions were limited to those who agree with Plaintiffs’ statement of faith. (Id., PageID.2726.)

On March 30, 2017, Plaintiffs’ president received an online message from Wayne State stating the [Registered Student Organization] application has been complete and her position as president was accepted. (Id.) However, the next day, on March 31, 2017, Defendant Villarosa sent the group president a message stating: “Neither membership, nor officer requirements may violate the university anti-discrimination policy—please amend the officer requirements accordingly and resubmit.” (Id., PageID.2726.) The online system for RSO submissions was new, and Plaintiffs’ chapter president overlooked the second message. (Id., PageID.2724, 2727.) Plaintiffs continued to be treated as an RSO through the spring semester of 2017 and into the fall. (Id., PageID.2727.)

…At the time of Plaintiffs’ deregistration and following it, other religious groups limited leadership to those who shared the groups’ religious principles. The Newman Catholic Center at Wayne State required leaders be “faithful,” and required that leaders engage in “prayerful Discernment.” (Id., PageID.2750.) The Muslim Student Association stated in its student group registration that it would remove leaders for “[v]iolat[ing] an Islamic principle that deems him/her unworthy to serve as a Muslim leader on campus.” (Id., PageID.2751.) The Rising, another religious group, limited leadership to students who “hold the same beliefs as our organization.” (Id., PageID.2750.) The Faholo Campus Ministry required leaders to “agree” with “denominational faith statements”; Ratio Christi required that leaders “profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”; The Eternal Message mandated that leaders “follow[] its mission” to “introduce people to Islam”; the Coptic Christian Club required leaders be “Coptic Orthodox Christian”; and Virtuous 31 required that its leaders “really love God.” (Id., PageID.2751-52.)

Wayne State also permitted a group affiliated with the New Life Church to become an RSO. (Id., PageID.59, PageID.2754-55.) Members and leaders of the group were required to “advance the efforts of the New Life student org,” which included “help[ing] students who wish to pursue God develop a deeper understanding and closer relationship with Jesus.” (Id.)

Secular groups both during and after Plaintiffs’ deregistration were permitted to limit membership and leadership based on agreement with their mission principles. The student group “Reunite and Organize in Spite of Everything” mandated that members “share with us the goal of African unification.” (Id., PageID.2755-56.) Leaders were required to “be actively working in the community to advance the African race.” (Id.) The Macedonian-American Student Association required that members “agree with the goals of the group,” which included “bring[ing] Macedonian-American students together in order to preserve and enrich [the] ethnicity.” (Id., PageID.2757-58.) The Secular Student Alliance sought “[t]o promote secular values” and requires that leaders “have shown commitment to the group.” (Id., PageID.2757.) Members were barred from “preaching.” (Id.)

Finally, under Wayne State’s non-discrimination policy, RSOs were categorically permitted to exclude members based on ethnicity, political viewpoint, ideology, physical attractiveness, and grade point average. (Id., PageID.2759.) For instance, Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative political organization, required members to agree with the group’s “principles,” and the International Youth and Students for Social Equality, which “fight[s] for a Marxist perspective,” required members be “in full agreement with the [group’s] statement of principles.” (Id.)

After Plaintiffs’ RSO status was revoked, they lost access to several benefits. Plaintiffs were no longer permitted to hold meetings at low or no cost using spacious and convenient locations on campus. (Id., PageID.2764-65.) The group incurred expenses running into thousands of dollars over the course of the semester to rent smaller and less accessible rooms. (Id.) Some meetings and events were cut back. (Id., PageID.2766-67.) Specifically, Plaintiffs reduced outreach tables at the school’s student center and did not host introductory “meet-and-greets.” (Id.; ECF No. 47-47, PageID.2254.) Plaintiffs’ group was removed from the official Wayne State student organizations list, and members received questions from other students on the group’s status. (ECF No. 59, PageID.2767-68; ECF No. 47-47, PageID.2259.) Plaintiffs lost the ability to communicate with students through Wayne State’s online student organizations platform and could not advertise its meetings like other RSOs. (ECF No. 59, PageID.2767-68; ECF No. 47-47, PageID.2259, 2262.)

…The Supreme Court has established in no uncertain terms that the ministerial exception is founded on a larger and deeply ingrained right of religious organizations to select their leaders and messengers. In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171, 177-78 (2012), a Lutheran Church operated a school in Redford, Michigan, and terminated a teacher—deemed in these circumstances to be a minister of the church—after she developed narcolepsy, took leave for several months during a school year, and attempted to return to work after the Church had hired a replacement teacher. The teacher filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and Michigan anti- discrimination law, seeking compensation and reinstatement. Id. at 179-80.

The Supreme Court held that the suit was barred under the First Amendment. Id. at 196. In doing so, the Court recognized broadly that “[b]oth Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.” Id. 181. The Court detailed the historical basis for this right. The Magna Carta in 1215 imposed limitations on the King of England prohibiting him from interfering with the English church’s “freedom of elections.” Id. at 182. However, in subsequent centuries, the English monarch was made “the supreme head of the Church” and was given “authority to appoint the Church’s high officers.” Id. In 1662, the English government created a law requiring that ministers “formally assent[] to prescribed tenets and pledge[] to follow [approved] mode[s] of worship.” Id. It was in this context that the first settlers of the United States fled England to ensure greater freedom in religious and community belief and practice. “[T]he Puritans fled to New England, where they hoped to elect their own ministers and establish their own modes of worship.” Id. “In Virginia . . . the law vested the governor with the power to induct ministers presented to him by parish vestries . . . but the vestries often refused to make such presentations and instead chose ministers on their own.” Id. at 183. In fact, when the colonies enacted laws that limited the ability of English officials to control and direct the appointment of ministers, “[a]uthorities in England intervened, repealing those laws as inconsistent with the rights of the Crown.” Id. at 183.

The Hosanna-Tabor Court recognized that it was “against this [historical] background that the First Amendment was adopted.” Id. “By forbidding the ‘establishment of religion’ and guaranteeing the ‘free exercise thereof,’ the Religion Clauses ensured that the new Federal Government—unlike the English Crown—would have no role in filling ecclesiastical offices.” Id. at 184. The Court then reiterated explicitly that the First Amendment, in its original understanding, was created to “prevent[] the Government from appointing ministers . . . [and] prevent[] it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.” Id.

James Madison’s actions in the early republic conformed with this original meaning. He repeatedly opposed executive and legislative policies that allowed the government to influence the “selection of ecclesiastical individuals,” arguing that such policies “violate[d] . . . the Constitution.” Id. at 184-85. The Hosanna-Tabor Court again concluded simply that “it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church’s determination of who can act as its ministers.” Id. at 185.

…Defendants’ decision to revoke Plaintiffs’ RSO status was also not viewpoint neutral, and, for this additional reason, the application of Wayne State’s non- discrimination policy does not survive First Amendment scrutiny. Rosenberger, 515 U.S. at 829-30.

…Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights by revoking their RSO status, along with the substantial advantages of being an official group on campus, based on Plaintiffs’ limiting their leaders to supporters of their beliefs, while also allowing numerous secular groups, and other religious groups, to engage in the same behavior without losing their RSO status. Greater specificity of Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights is not required. Baynes, 799 F.3d at 611. Defendants Villarosa and Strauss are not entitled to qualified immunity because the rights violated were clearly established. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 735.

…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. Defendants also violated the Establishment Clause as a matter of law. Defendant Villarosa and Strauss are entitled to qualified immunity on only Plaintiffs’ freedom of assembly claim. Qualified immunity is otherwise denied. Moreover, the remainder of Plaintiffs’ claims survive Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Accordingly, IT IS ORDERED that Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 47) is GRANTED.

…IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendants are ENJOINED from revoking Plaintiffs’ RSO status at Wayne State University based on Plaintiffs’ religious criteria for student leadership selection. Read more»

Robert H. Cleland, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division in “Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship/USA and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Wayne State Chapter v. Board of Governors of Wayne State University et al., April, 5, 2021.


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