Christian Student Groups Fight to Retain Use of Campus Facilities

Christianity Today/June 6, 1980

A Christian student group at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, used to hold its Saturday night meetings in a campus-owned building. Members of Cornerstone often attracted more than 100 students to the Haig Hall Annex for an informal time of Bible study, prayer, singing, and testimony.

But last December Cornerstone was refused the use of campus facilities, even though it is an officially recognized student group at the university. U.S. District Court Judge William R. Collinson ruled the Cornerstone meetings violated a school policy that prohibits the use of campus facilities for purposes of "religious worship or religious teaching" (Chess v. Widmark). The group now meets in a private house, which, complains one student, is less accessible-being off campus-and in which less than half the attenders can see the speaker.

More is at stake here than the inconvenience of meeting off campus, say Christian legal experts monitoring the case. They see the Chess decision, and a subsequent one involving Christian student groups at Western Washington University in Bellingham as posing serious threats to college campus and high school ministries throughout the United States. "These decisions," noted the Christian Legal Society (CLS) publication, The Advocate, have the effect of making Christian student groups second-class citizens with restricted rights to speak and assemble."

Both decisions are under appeal. Christian student organizations fear the decisions-if allowed to stand-would set unfavorable precedents. Some observers, for instance, blame the Chess ruling for setting a precedent that led to the decision restricting Christian student groups at Western Washington University.

In March, a U.S. District Court in Seattle rejected a suit, filed by students representing several Christian student groups, which challenged Western Washington rules restricting their use of campus meeting rooms. Judge Donald Voorhees ruled that public colleges and universities may not permit "regular use" of campus buildings and facilities for religious purposes; such use would be an "advancement of religion" in violation of constitutional provisions requiring separation of church and state (Dittman v. Western Washington University).

Representatives of the interdenominational Campus Christian Fellowship, and chapters of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, have appealed the ruling. But presently they are abiding by university rules that limit student groups to no more than two religious meetings in campus facilities per academic quarter. The groups also must pay a fee for such use of campus facilities. (Student groups submit proposals for their programs in advance, so school officials can determine whether these are "religious.")

(Kansas City lawyer and CLS member James M. Smart. Jr., is handling the appeal of the Chess decision; he expected oral arguments to be docketed late last month in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He noted the appeal will be important in setting a precedent since "there is no case on record involving a federal appeals court that deals precisely with this issue." Seattle lawyers Robert L. Gunter and William "Skeeter" Ellis, also CLS members, are chief counsel for the appeal of the Western Washington decision.)

Christian groups are protesting a growing number of instances of alleged violations of constitutional rights:

  • The Inter-Varsity chapter at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater cannot hold meetings in the student center unless it pays rent, whereas groups such as the Muslim Student Association and a transcendental meditation group escape those restrictions.

  • An Albany, New York, case involves the alleged denial of the right of certain Christian students to meet in a high school classroom during their free time for Bible club.

  • An Illinois case involves Christian students at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, who say they are being denied the right to live in a Christian house similar to fraternity and sorority houses.

In some cases, students themselves have placed restrictions on Christian groups. The Western Washington student government would have removed the on-campus presence of Christian groups entirely, said Brady Bobbink of the Campus Christian Fellowship, had it not been for lobbying and legal action by Christian students at the school over the last two years. Now, at least, the groups are allowed lounge meetings and small group Bible studies in the dormitories, he said.

The Advocate reported that a student court at the University of Nebraska recently placed on a year's probation the Baptist Student Union, and IVCF, Campus Crusade, and Navigators chapters for violating a Board of Regents' policy prohibiting "testimony in any of its forms." The groups had cosponsored a campus lecture by apologetics author Josh McDowell, who spoke on factual evidence for Christ's resurrection. The court defined testimony as "an open public declaration of a personal, religions, or spiritual revelation."

Some Christian spokesmen blame their on-campus difficulties on opposition from liberals and "secular humanists." In many instances, however, the schools have acted only to protect themselves from lawsuits from civil liberties groups accusing them of endorsing a certain religious persuasion or of allowing the proselytism of a captive student audience, by allowing the on-campus presence of Christian groups.

Legal questions have focused upon the "free exercise" and "establishment" clauses of the First Amendment, which reads in part: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

School officials at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, say their ban on religious activities in campus-owned facilities is required by the establishment clause. Judge Collinson upheld that opinion, ruling such use would, in fact, be an unconstitutional establishment of religion. He also rejected the Christian students' claims that the school policy violated their free exercise of religion. To invoke the free exercise clause, he ruled, the infringed practice must be "one of deep religious conviction, shared by an organized group, and intimately related to daily living. ...The facts before this court simply do not establish that the practice of holding religious services in a university-owned building is a matter of deep religious conviction."

The judge did hold open the possibility that group prayer or Bible study could be conducted by Christians on university sidewalks, streets, or grounds. He partly explained the restrictions on religious groups, saying, "Speech with religious content cannot be treated the same as any other form of speech....."

A nagging question has been, What exactly constitutes a "religious" program or speech

  • When Inter-Varsity students, in cooperation with the Campus Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade, showed Francis Schaeffer's five-part film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race

  • in the university building, school officials determined the first three segments were nonreligious, and the final two religious. The effect was that IVCI used up its allowed two-per-quarter religious programs in campus facilities. It paid a building rental fee just for the last two showings.
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