Campus 'Diversity' Puts Religion on Probation

Bloomberg View , September 18, 2014

American colleges often praise “diversity” as one of their highest values. The term is, of course, a well-understood code word for diversity not of thought or values but of race and ethnicity. The assumption is that people of different backgrounds and experiences, including ethnic backgrounds and immigrant experiences, will naturally bring with them diversity of thought and values and, hence, enrich campus cultural and intellectual life.

The problem now facing the California State University system is that this assumption may very well be true. Faced with a conflict between that its self-proclaimed commitments to diversity and "access", the university system -- with permission from the U.S. Supreme Court -- has passed a new rule that clearly prioritizes the latter over the former.

With 23 campuses and 446,000 students, including about 391,000 undergraduates, Cal State is the largest four-year college system in the U.S. It is also one of the most ethnically diverse, reflecting the state’s large population of Latin American and Asian immigrants. Although demographics vary by campus, overall the student body is 33 percent Latino (25.5 percent Mexican American), 15.3 percent Asian (plus another 1.2 percent Filipino), 29.1 percent white and 4.6 percent black.

Many of the upwardly mobile first- and second-generation immigrants who populate this proudly diverse system don’t think like the people who run it. The faculty and administration tend to be secular and socially liberal, while many students, particularly students of color, are traditionally religious and socially conservative.

“In their science classes or in their literature classes, what’s understood as the normative world view is different from their conservative evangelical world view,” says Rebecca Y. Kim, a sociologist at Pepperdine University who studies the religious experiences of Asian-American students, particularly the children of Korean immigrants, who dominate evangelical groups on many U.S. campuses. For these students, she suggest, Christian fellowship meetings provide what sociologists call “plausibility structures” -- social groupings in which students’ religious beliefs and mores are treated as normal. “They get that space within the secular institution,” Kim says.

At Cal State, the secular institution is encroaching on that space. A new rule, known system-wide as Executive Order 1068, requires student groups seeking official recognition to adopt an “all comers” policy, allowing any currently enrolled student to join or to serve as an officer. (An exception allows fraternities and sororities to remain segregated by sex.) “If the chess club wants to prohibit checkers players, that would be illegal,” explains Michael Uhlenkamp, Cal State’s public affairs director.

The rule grows out of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. The court held it constitutional for a public university to require recognized student groups to adopt all-comers policies, even if that meant that a religious fellowship couldn’t exclude people who disagree with its doctrines.

The policy at issue required groups at Hastings Law School in San Francisco (part of the University of California system, not Cal State) to “allow any student to participate, become a member, or seek leadership positions in the organization, regardless of their status or beliefs.” Christian Legal Society wanted an exemption allowing it to exclude members who didn’t agree both to its doctrinal creed and to acode of conduct prohibiting “sexual relations other than within a marriage between one man and one woman” and thereby excluding students who engage in “unrepentant homosexual conduct.” The case was thus seen as a gay-rights case, although Mormons and people who watch pornography were equally excluded.

The court ruled that although a state university can’t ban a group from campus for not agreeing to an all-comers policy, the school doesn’t have to give it privileges such as free access to rooms. The court didn’t declare such policies mandatory, of course. It only ruled that they are not illegal.

Cal State adopted its own all-comers the next year, and it is going into effect now. “As a university system, we embrace the idea of access,” Uhlenkamp said, “and this is something that expands on that.” Only groups that sign a pledge to accept all students as members and -- the key provision -- as officers, without any restrictions on their beliefs, will be certified as official organizations able to use rooms for free, identify themselves with the school name, participate in recruitment events outside the designated “free speech zone” or (although this is rare for religious groups) receive funding from student fees.

Two national groups, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Cru (which includes affiliate ministries aimed at Asians, Latinos and blacks), have declined to agree to the rule for officers, although their membership is open to anyone.1 Since individual campuses must approve chapter applications, however, it isn’t entirely clear whether all their chapters will be decertified. Both groups still appear, for example, on the Cal State-Fullerton website, with Cru’s constitution dated Aug. 20.

If the all-comers policy worked the way it sounds on paper, it would destroy the qualities that make religious fellowships valuable to students, especially ethnic minorities. “If you force them to have leaders who don’t have this distinct world view and belief system, it completely goes against the reason for their existence,” says Kim.

But Uhlenkamp is quick to argue that the policy won’t have such dire effects. Recognized groups are still allowed to elect their officers and to impose requirements that they be active members for a certain period of time. The democratic process, he suggests, should keep groups true to their missions. “The practical implication is that someone who doesn’t have those values, besides the fact that they didn’t sign a piece of paper, is likely not going to rise to a leadership position if they weren’t of a likeminded belief system,” he says.

He may very well be right. Indeed, much of Kim’s work examines why campus evangelical groups tend to self-segregate by ethnicity, even when they’re open to anyone, profess universalist views and worship in English with almost identical services. “It’s just more comfortable” is the explanation most students gave her. “When you unpack that,” she says, “it’s the comfort of being with fellow believers, but also with people who understand what it’s like to be them.”

Social dynamics, in other words, may keep most evangelical Christian groups doctrinally conservative for the same reasons that predominantly black or Korean groups that are open to anyone tend to stay ethnically homogeneous. If that's true, however, the policy is a gratuitous insult, forcing groups to deny their core values and sign symbolic statements they don’t really believe. It’s a way for the university to pledge allegiance to diversity without embracing pluralism.


1 It is not true, as Slate correspondent Mark Joseph Stern wrote, that “because InterVarsity insisted on refusing membership to all gay students, Cal State was legally compelled to revoke its recognition as an official student group.” In fact, InterVarsity’s membership is open to all students. The policy at issue is a requirement that chapter officers subscribe to a doctrinal statement that says nothing about sex or sexuality.