A Mind Puzzler: Intervarsity on Cal State campuses and EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch

Note: After reading more, I realize the Supreme Court did not rule that discrimination had taken place, but that it was not necessary for Elauf to ask for a religious accommodation, in which case parts of this post may veer into the hypothetical, or into assumption, if you will……

I have a puzzler to share. When I was at UCSB campus, we would have Christian fellowships to join, Intervarsity, Campus Crusade, AACF, Chi Alpha. Like other campus groups, the leadership would be able to sign up to use lecture halls or classrooms for meetings. I read recently that Cal State universities stopped recognizing Intervarsity Christian fellowships as campus groups because of its discriminatory policy; Intervarsity policy says in order to be in leadership you must be Christian. Without official recognition, fellowships have had to be creative. For example, some meet in members’ homes. This poses a problem for larger groups who cannot find similar accommodations nor pay upwards of 10,000 to rent meeting space. Intervarsity has tried to discuss this with Cal State officials who are not budging. Intervarsity has not pursued legal means.

My first inclination when I read this was, they should sue! It makes sense that in order to lead a Christian fellowship, one should be Christian. Just like if you lead a biking club, you should know how to ride a bicycle and know where the trails are. The policy is closely tailored and directly relevant. That is, it is reasonably necessary to the purpose and aim of the fellowship: fostering spiritual understanding and growth. It does not target or single out any group as ineligible for leadership, which would be closer to the heart of what anti-discriminatory laws seek to protect against.

Today I read a news item on a Muslim student (she was 17) who applied for employment at Abercrombie & Fitch but was denied presumably because of her head scarf. The Supreme Court handed down a decision today (8-1) in favor of the student who “show[ed] that her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in Abercrombie’s decision not to hire her.” Although Abercrombie felt she did not fit the collegiate prep look of their clothes, the end result is, store policy, wrong; potential employee, right.

At first glance, I side with the potential hire; yes, religious discrimination should not be tolerated. (According to the article, other religious organizations, Christians, Jews, and Sikhs also filed briefs siding with Elauf.) Then I read a quote from dissenting Justice Clarence Thomas’ opinion that “mere application of a neutral policy” should not be viewed as discrimination. A&F isn’t targeting or singling out a specific group as ineligible for sales positions, it’s a blanket “look policy.” Is sartorial discrimination by a company that sells clothes justifiable? (It seems like it would be, right? The only thing I have here is that success in sales can be attributed to things other than dress, such as interpersonal skills, like confidence or persuasion, in which case a “look policy” is overreaching.)

This was looking a lot like the Intervarsity issue. Is religious discrimination by a student group that promotes a certain faith justifiable? It was brought up that in the first instance, the person would be in leadership whereas in the second instance, the person would be a salesperson and not in a corporate position, per se. I see the distinction, but I don’t quite agree. Whereas the key component of a fellowship is spiritual growth, so it stands their most important people must be solid in faith, the key component to A&F, a business, is sales, so in that sense their most important assets are its salespeople. Moreover, a salesperson could always rise in the ranks to be a manager, and so forth.

I feel that Christian faith as a requirement to lead a Christian fellowship is sensible, even necessary, and that Cal State made an error in its anti-discriminatory intent. But, I also agree with “store policy, wrong; potential hire, right.” As I know, no one has tried to run for leadership in Intervarsity and been denied on basis of nonChristian faith, and decided to sue. If they did, would the courts side with the student and Cal State, or with Intervarsity? Is it possible to see Intervarsity as the party being discriminated against, on par with Elauf, that, in a sea of campus groups, their religious convictions are a factor in Cal State’s decision not to grant them official status?

I write this because of the Law & Society in me, seeing a parallel and not sure how to reconcile standing with the individual in one situation but with the group/organization in the other. It’s an open discussion. There’s more to hash out. Weigh in?

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2 comments

  1. Sarah · · Reply

    This was a really good read! I enjoyed it.

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