Thursday, September 11, 2014

Christian campus groups face persecution

Excerpted from The Wrong Kind of Christian,” Christianity Today. August 27, 2014 — Two years ago, the student organization I worked for at Vanderbilt University got kicked off campus for being the wrong kind of Christians. In May 2011, Vanderbilt's director of religious life told me that the group I'd helped lead for two years, Graduate Christian Fellowship—a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—was on probation. We had to drop the requirement that student leaders affirm our doctrinal and purpose statement, or we would lose our status as a registered student organization.

In writing, the new policy refers only to constitutionally protected classes (race, religion, sexual identity, and so on), but Vanderbilt publicly adopted an "all comers policy," which meant that no student could be excluded from a leadership post on ideological grounds.

Like most campus groups, InterVarsity welcomes anyone as a member. But it asks key student leaders—the executive council and small group leaders—to affirm its doctrinal statement, which outlines broad Christian orthodoxy and does not mention sexual conduct specifically. But the university saw belief statements themselves as suspect. It didn't matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn't matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

Those of us opposed to the new policy met with everyone we could to plead our case and seek compromise. But as spring semester ended, 14 campus religious communities—comprising about 1,400 Catholic, evangelical, and Mormon students—lost their organizational status. After we lost our registered status, our organization was excluded from new student activity fairs. So our student leaders decided to make T-shirts to let others know about our group. Because we were no longer allowed to use Vanderbilt's name, we struggled to convey that we were a community of Vanderbilt students who met near campus. So the students decided to write a simple phrase on the shirts: WE ARE HERE.

And they are. They're still there in labs and classrooms, researching languages and robotics, reflecting God's creativity through the arts and seeking cures for cancer. They are still loving their neighbors, praying, struggling, and rejoicing. You can find them proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, in daily ordinariness. And though it is more difficult than it was a few years ago, ministry continues on campus, often on the margins and just outside the gates. God is still beautifully at work. And his mercy is relentless.


Dr. J. Scott RiesCMDA’s National Director of Campus & Community Ministries J. Scott Ries, MD: “It is a remarkable story, but unfortunately not an isolated one. Just this week, InterVarsity announced that it has been booted off of all California State University campuses for the same reason, because they insist on a rational basis of faith as criteria for holding a leadership position.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg. In the last 18 months, two CMDA chapters have also been de-recognized for, yes, the exact same reason. At the University of Illinois, Chicago, we were told that because we require our student leaders to agree with CMDA’s statement of belief, we therefore violate their anti-discrimination policies. At the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine, our CMDA group was denied official recognition “because of the emphasis on God and especially because of the Bible sessions.”

"Thankfully, in both cases the Lord gave us favor after I sent a letter with assistance from Kim Colby, Sr. Legal Counsel for Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom to the respective deans, explaining that this misapplication of their policy actually was, in fact, discrimination at its core. Both universities promptly reversed their positions, and CMDA is thriving on both campuses. But it will get worse. Our 280 campus chapters will be a lightning rod as this storm builds.

“So why is official recognition important after all? Why not just exist under the radar, meet off campus and avoid the toil, expense and pain of fighting what has become a cultural landslide smothering both orthodox beliefs and religious pluralism? Because lack of recognition impedes ministry and increases the cost of doing ministry. Greg Jao, attorney and National Field Staff Director for InterVarsity, explains it well.

“When one group loses religious freedoms, we all lose religious freedoms. Historically, what starts at the university campus trickles into all of society. That remains true, but what has changed is the rapidity with which it now happens. It seems as though someone has poured accelerant onto the fire of intolerance that is consuming those who share the very faith that brought tolerance to this world.”


Standing Against Persecution: My Journey to Start a CMDA Campus Chapter
The Erosion of Tolerance by John Patrick, MD


  1. Thank you for fighting the good fight. Where can I buy a "WE ARE HERE" T-shirt? God bless all Christian campus ministries; His will be done.

    1. Has the letter Dr. Ries described also been sent to Vanderbilt? What was the result?

    2. Becky, the CMDA ministry at Vanderbilt is an exception to all of our other campus ministries, as it operates with InterVarsity staff under their umbrella. While we kept in close contact with IV staff during their appeal, we did not have standing upon which to appeal.

      We continue to watch this closely...and even just yesterday I learned of a threat to another CMDA campus chapter at another university. Thank you for your prayers and support!

    3. The current staff person at Vanderbilt, Colin Fagan, would be the one to ask about the t-shirts. Email and we can give you his email address.

  2. Leah, we are checking into whether any are still available and will post that information as soon as we receive it.