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Duke University kicks out Young Life Ministries

January 2020 | by Ben Wilkerson

Duke University USA (Source: Ilyse Whitney/Flickr)
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On September 18, 2019, the student governing body at Duke University unanimously voted to deny Young Life ministries as a recognised student organisation on their campus. Their reason for not welcoming Young Life as a campus organisation is due to the fact that Young Life policy prohibits LGBTQ people from being in leadership or in staff roles.

Duke has recently issued a policy that requires student organisations to include a ‘non-discriminatory’ policy in their constitution.  When asked to revise their bylaws, Young Life refused and instead affirmed the following: ‘We do not in any way wish to exclude persons who engage in sexual misconduct or who practice a homosexual lifestyle from being recipients of ministry of God’s grace and mercy as expressed in Jesus Christ. We do, however, believe that such persons are not to serve as staff or volunteers in the mission and work of Young Life’.

While this official statement by Duke’s student senate prohibits Young Life as an official student group on campus, it does not prohibit the organisation from meeting off campus. Nonetheless, this has serious ramifications for Young Life and other ministries as official denial from a university prohibits them from obtaining rights to assemble on campus or have official presence at school fairs. This is not the first time that a student ministry organisation has been under attack on a university campus.

In the United States, there are literally hundreds of different Christian groups which have official or unofficial status on university campuses and many of which have a presence on international campuses. Some of these are non-denominational such as Young Life, Campus Crusade for Christ, the Navigators, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Others are affiliated with specific denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Collegiate Ministries, Wesley Foundation of the Methodist Church, Reformed University Fellowship of the Presbyterian Church in America, or the Lutheran Student Fellowship to name a few.

While most of the para-church organisations such as Young Life or the Navigators may have lay people serving as campus leaders for the group, others are led by actual ministers who must raise support to provide for their families as they minister to students. The ministers not only lead Bible studies and corporate gatherings but also provide counselling for students and help them get involved with a local church.

In an age of relativism and liberal politics, college student ministries have often borne the brunt of discrimination – ironically – as student governing bodies move towards a front of being ‘non-discriminatory’. In public university settings, these cases often bring up students’ First Amendment Rights as a means of protecting Christian student organisations.

In California this year, every university in the public sector sought to de-recognise InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) as a recognised student group on their campus. In an interview with First Things, IVCF stated the reason they were de-recognised: ‘This new CSU [California State University] policy does not allow us to require that our leaders be Christian. It is essentially asking InterVarsity chapters to change the core of their identity, and to change the way they operate in order to be an officially recognised student group’.

In an interview with Christianity Today, someone from IVCF stated what this means for their ministry, ‘Loss of recognition means we lose 3 things: free access to rooms (this will cost our chapters $13k-30k/year to reserve room). We also lose access to student activities programs, including the new student fairs where we meet most students. We also lose standing when we engage faculty, students and administrators’.

Such discrimination on the part of school governing boards has affected universities across the country. Gordon College, originally started in Boston as a training school for missionaries, had its teacher education partnership terminated by the Massachusetts school district because it was a Christian university. In most situations, the case is brought up by Christian civil rights groups who invoke the students’ First Amendment Rights (right to free exercise of religion) as a just reason for them to assemble on campus. However, in the case of Duke University (and others such as Vanderbilt University and Bowdoin College), these rights don’t apply as easily since they are private and not state institutions.

According to the Freedom Forum Institute, ‘There is a fundamental distinction between public and private school students under the First Amendment. The First Amendment and the other provisions of the Bill of Rights limit the government from infringing on an individual’s rights. Public school officials act as part of the government and are called state actors. As such, they must act according to the principles in the Bill of Rights. Private schools, however, aren’t arms of the government. Therefore, the First Amendment does not provide protection for students at private schools’.

Please pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ who are in university settings. They come under incredible pressure not just from their peers but also from their instructors to cave into secular culture. The modern air of ‘non-discrimination’ wants to let everyone in except Christians. Pray for boldness for campus leaders and for students as they seek to share their faith with their classmates. While in university, students are at a very formative time in their lives and student ministries can have an overwhelming impact. I know of many who received Christ when they were in college.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA.