Legal Challenges

InterVarsity has been confronted with a new climate of opposition to our ministry on campus for more than two decades, prompting us to respond with some difficult but necessary actions. As David French reports, in a comprehensive article describing 15 years of InterVarsity history, the first challenge came in 2000 on the campus of Tufts University.

In 2002 InterVarsity filed suit against Rutgers University to defend the rights of our student chapter. On October 3, 2006, we filed action in federal court on behalf of InterVarsity students at the University of Wisconsin-Superior after the chapter was derecognized. The August, 2006, disaffiliation of our chapters on the campus of Georgetown University was also a concern to us, although that was a completely different issue unrelated to the rest of these cases. We are pleased to report that the Rutgers University, UW-Superior, and Georgetown University situations were agreeably resolved and that InterVarsity students in these chapters continue to be part of thriving, officially recognized, campus organizations.

In recent years there have been challenges at a number of additional schools, including:

  • The University of Iowa
  • Wayne State University
  • Indiana University
  • California State University system schools
  • Bowdoin College
  • Rollins College
  • SUNY Buffalo
  • Tufts University
  • University of Michigan
  • Vanderbilt University

In most but not all of these cases, agreement was reached so that InterVarsity could remain on campus as a registered student organization. At Ohio State University, for instance, the student organization registration guidelines now state: “A student organization formed to foster or affirm the sincerely held religious beliefs of its members may adopt eligibility criteria for its Student Officers that are consistent with those beliefs.” However, at some  schools — such as Vanderbilt, Rollins, Tufts, and Bowdoin — InterVarsity's ministry has been forced off campus. InterVarsity chapters on the California State University campuses were forced off campus for the 2014-2015 school year before the dispute was resolved and the chapters returned to campuses.

InterVarsity continues to participate in a national discussion of the issues related to religious pluralism on campus, through its participation with the Aspen Institute and other organizations in a series of panel discussions.

The Legal Decision that Changed the Landscape

The number of campuses which have asked InterVarsity to change our values and leadership standards is not a large number but it has been on the increase since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court verdict in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. Since that decision, InterVarsity's status as a recognized student organization has been challenged on more than 40 campuses (when a count was made in early 2012). InterVarsity is currently tracking a number of campus access challenges, all of which involve university nondiscrimination policies limiting the freedom of InterVarsity chapters to select leaders based on religious criteria.

Further reflection:

Reflections from InterVarsity Leaders

Reports from the Front Lines of the Campus Pluralism Debate

Legal Responses:

More Campuses of Concern

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a briefing on March 22, 2013, probing the conflict between principles of nondiscrimination and religious liberties. One of the panels focused on the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of CLS v. Martinez, that is discussed below. InterVarsity staff and students have submitted statements for inclusion in the public record of the briefing. We produced a news release on the briefing, as well as a report following the briefing.

News coverage:

The Commission finally released its report three and a half years later, in September, 2016. While Commission Reports do not have legal authority, their findings can influence legislation and legal decisions.

News coverage:


We believe that the decision in the Martinez case is much narrower than schools often realize and we hope that all of these challenges will be resolved so that our ministry on campus is not restricted. We are encouraged by the 2012 Supreme Court Decision in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although it’s a narrowly written decision, the unanimous ruling of the justices endorsed the First Amendment principle of religious organizations being free from government interference in leadership decisions.

As Justice Samuel Alito noted in his concurring opinion in the Hosanna-Tabor case, "The First Amendment protects the freedom of religious groups to engage in certain key religious activities, including the conducting of worship services and other religious ceremonies and rituals, as well as the critical process of communicating the faith. Accordingly, religious groups must be free to choose the personnel who are essential to the performance of these functions."