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Michigan university can’t punish Christian club for requiring leaders be Christian, Judge rules

A federal court ruled on Monday to protect a Christian student organization that had its official student club status revoked by a Michigan university for requiring its leaders to adhere to its statement of faith. University officials will be held liable for discriminating against the club.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a student ministry that provides community, Bible studies and important discussions on campus, has been a part of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan for over 75 years.

Though the club is open to all students, the university deemed InterVarsity’s leadership policies “discriminatory” for requiring that the group’s leaders agree with the organization’s statement of faith.

WSU de-registered the club during a routine club membership reapplication process in October 2017 due to the club’s supposed discrimination against non-Christians. But, the university eventually recalled its decision after InterVarsity filed a lawsuit. 

Not being recognized as a club meant InterVarsity could not enjoy certain campus benefits, such as reserving meeting rooms for free, hosting free tables at events or applying for certain campus funding.

Judge Robert H. Cleland of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that the university’s actions “strike at the heart” of the First Amendment and are “obviously odious to the Constitution.”

He added that the university’s “disparate and discriminatory” treatment of the religious group violates the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause. He said the school’s attempts to dictate the club’s leadership are “categorically barred by the Constitution.”

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, a George H.W. Bush appointee, wrote in his decision.

The judge pointed out how other student groups were able to restrict leadership based on sex, gender identity, political partisanship, ideology, creed, ethnicity, GPA or attractiveness but the “small group of Christians … were denied [student organization] benefits because they require their Christian leaders to be … Christian.” 

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