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Christian student groups on campus under increasing pressure

NEWS | Kaley Payne & Sophie Timothy

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Campus Christian groups around the world, including Australia, are having to tread carefully as universities and student unions and take an increasingly hostile stance towards them.

Just this week, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at California State University campuses had to deregister as an official campus group, in order to continue to require students affirm their stated beliefs before becoming leaders. California State University says the doctrinal statement is discriminatory against non-Christians and homosexuals insofar as it affirms belief in the “truthfulness of the Bible”.

5793872558_cf2d0b3af5_zThe University argued that requiring student leaders to affirm the doctrinal statement conflicted with a state-imposed policy of having open membership and leadership of student groups. A Supreme Court decision in California in 2010 ruled that a public college can refuse to recognise a religious student organisation if its religious beliefs are discriminatory. California State University said the group had to deregister unless it changed its policy requiring affirmation of belief, which it refused to do.

Here in Australia, things aren’t quite so dire, although there have been run-ins with universities over various issues.

Our greatest risk is being ungodly–getting hot tempered about it, or being unlovely about it, or just sinning because we don’t believe the gospel ourselves.

The Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students has a doctrinal statement which its groups across the country have to align with in order to be an AFES group on campus. National Director of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Richard Chin says each campus has different requirements regarding who has to affirm that statement, whether just leaders, or leaders and members. “But in principle,” he says, “every student leader who wants to be on the committee at least of an official AFES affiliated group would sign on to the doctrinal basis.”

He says their campus groups operate within the law, but it hasn’t stopped some universities questioning their policies.

“Lawyers tell me there is such a thing as lawful discrimination and unlawful discrimination. It’s thoroughly lawful to have students in the ALP club to have students who hold ALP values. It just doesn’t make any sense if they hold on to Liberal values and say it’s unfair that they can’t get elected onto the ALP club. That’s ridiculous. So…we operate within the bounds of lawful discrimination in this, I think.”

Despite it “making sense”, it doesn’t always play out that way. Richard tells the story of two Australian campuses where the AFES group has been given a probationary period after people identifying as homosexuals complained to the university about discrimination.

At another campus that would rather not be named, the Christian group has been working hard behind the scenes to continue to have members be required to affirm its doctrinal statement. They say it’s all well and good for leaders to be required to affirm the statement, but if the student members vote in the leaders and half of them aren’t Christian, it could mean they end up with a mixed leadership. The group believes its talks with the student association committee are going well and will result in a favourable decision.

Asked whether he thinks Australia is heading towards the situation facing universities in the US, Richard says, “Yes, I think that’s the trajectory that we’re on.” But he notes that we do have more allowances in Australia for “lawful discrimination”. And yet, he concedes, “It wouldn’t surprise me if we still have good laws in place and still find it hard and harder on the ground.”

Sexuality and gender seem to be a key battlegrounds for Christian student groups.

In Victoria a few years ago, one Christian group decided for one meeting to split into men and women to discuss a particular issue. Richard says the then-Vice President of the group, a female, disagreed with the need to split and complained to the university about a threat to equality. While on another campus in NSW, a gay rights activist began trolling the Christian group’s Facebook page to write inflammatory messages, and began attending public meetings, where he yelled out his criticisms mid-sermon and scared a number of the female students with his aggression, saying he’d like to see the group forced off campus.

In terms of how to handle the increasing hostility and sensitivity, Richard says it’s about coming back to the basic principle of loving your enemies and those who persecute you.

“Our greatest risk is being ungodly–getting hot tempered about it, or being unlovely about it, or just sinning because we don’t believe the gospel ourselves. It sounds basic, but it’s the foundation. “It’s only within that foundation that we can start to tackle these other issues in as strategic a way as possible.”

AFES staff worker at the Wagga Wagga Campus of Charles Sturt University, Steve Lister says that’s the approach they took with their once-hostile Student Association executive. The Christian group ran into problems when a series of articles critical about their activities were published in the student newspaper during O-Week and mission week, discouraging students from attending the Christian Fellowship. The negativity coming from the student executive, along with other concerns regarding clubs on campus, culminated in all clubs being banned from having stalls at O-Week the next year.

Steve says the approach they’ve taken since then is to love the staff and students on campus in an active way, seeking the best for the campus. Reflecting the progress that’s been made, Steve is now an official “Visiting Spiritual Advisor”, and has been granted staff privileges like making classroom bookings. “That’s really come about through loving the uni and and building relationships with staff on campus. It’s all the grace of God. God’s been really kind to us, because I know there are lots of people loving their campuses and not having the same result.”

On whether it’s a right or a privilege to be on campus, Richard Chin says it’s about holding those two things in tension.

“Both. It’s certainly a right in terms of freedom of religion and freedom of speech, which as far as I am able I’ll fight for, not just for Christian groups but all religious groups. “But it’s also an enormous privilege that we shouldn’t take for granted. So the freedom we have here to exist as an organised Christian group is just marvellous and affords all sorts of opportunities, despite the growing challenges, and we’ll ride that wave as far as we can.”

Photo credit: Vernon Tang via Flickr

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