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Intervarsity Christian Fellowship v. Board of Governors of Wayne State University

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

September 20, 2019

INTERVARSITY CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP/USA and INTERVARSITY CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY CHAPTER, Plaintiffs,
v.
BOARD OF GOVERNORS OF WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY at al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS, DENYING WITHOUT PREJUDICE PLAINTIFFS’ MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT, AND DIRECTING THE PARTIES TO SUBMIT A PROPOSED CASE MANAGEMENT PLAN

          ROBERT H. CLELAND, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In 2017, Wayne State University denied the application presented by Plaintiff InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (also “Christian Fellowship” or “InterVarsity”) to be recognized as a student organization on campus, reasoning that the requirement that the leaders of the Christian Fellowship actually be Christians violated the University’s nondiscrimination policy. InterVarsity filed a 20-count complaint alleging that Wayne State violated its First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. Wayne State moves to dismiss the complaint in its entirety for failure to state a claim. (ECF No. 6.) InterVarsity moves for partial summary judgment. (ECF No. 7.) Both motions are fully briefed, and the court held a hearing on July 10, 2019. (ECF No. 24.) For the reasons stated below, the court will grant in part and deny in part Wayne State’s Motion to Dismiss and deny without prejudice InterVarsity’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. The parties will be directed to meet, confer, and propose a case management plan.

         I. BACKGROUND

         InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA is a Christian organization whose purpose “is to establish and advance at colleges and universities witnessing communities of students and faculty who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord.” (ECF No. 7, PageID.139; ECF No. 10, PageID.289.) It has chapters at colleges across the country. The Wayne State chapter has been active for over 75 years, holding weekly Bible studies, encouraging discussion on important social issues, and volunteering in the community. All students are welcome to participate and to be members of the group. (Id.)

         The Wayne State chapter, like all InterVarsity groups, requires the students leading the group to profess Christian faith. Those applying for a leadership position are advised of the role’s “serious spiritual responsibilities” and are asked to describe their “relationship with Jesus Christ, ” “personal devotional life, ” and church involvement. (Id.) The students chosen for leadership positions are given the title “Christian Leader” and are responsible for leading Bible studies and group prayer, among other religious duties. (ECF No. 7, PageID.139.) Before they take on a leadership role, students participate in an apprenticeship program presented by the national organization to equip them to provide spiritual leadership to their peers. (ECF No. 7-2, PageID.203; ECF No. 7-3, PageID.227–28.)

         Wayne State recognizes over 400 student groups on campus. (ECF No. 7, PageID.140; ECF No. 10, PageID.287.) Recognition gives a student group the ability to reserve free meeting space on campus, appear on the Wayne State webpage, use the school’s online system to contact students and schedule events, apply for funding, and participate in student organization recruiting events. (ECF No. 7, PageID.141; ECF No. 10, PageID.288–89.) Beginning in 2017, student groups were required to apply through an online registration system to be approved as a recognized student organization. (ECF No. 7, PageID.141; ECF No. 10, PageID.287–88.) Cristina Garza, the president of the Wayne State InterVarsity chapter, submitted the group’s application through this system. The application included InterVarsity’s constitution and described the group’s leadership requirements.

         Upon submitting the online application, Ms. Garza received a message that the application had been completed and her position as president had been accepted. She later received a message from Ricardo Villarosa, the Coordinator of Student Life and Student Organization Services, stating: “Neither membership, nor officer requirements may violate the university anti-discrimination policy-please amend the officer requirements accordingly and resubmit.” (ECF No. 7, PageID.142; ECF No. 10, PageID.290.) Garza did not amend the leadership requirements, and InterVarsity’s application was denied. Nonetheless, InterVarsity continued to operate in its usual manner into the fall of 2017.

         Garza re-submitted InterVarsity’s application in September, and it was again denied. She contacted the office of the Dean of Students, and Mr. Villarosa informed her that Christian Fellowship’s constitutional requirement that its leaders share the Christian faith was inconsistent with the school’s non-discrimination code. Wayne State’s Non-Discrimination/Affirmative Action Policy states that the “University is committed to a policy of non-discrimination and equal opportunities in all of its operations, employment opportunities, educational programs, and related activities.” (ECF No. 6-1, PageID.121.) It continues: “This policy embraces all persons regardless of race, color, sex (including gender identity), national origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, familial status, marital status, height, weight, disability, or veteran status . . . .” (Id.) On October 26, Wayne State confirmed that it had derecognized InterVarsity and cancelled all of its meeting-space reservations. InterVarsity began renting space at its own expense to continue holding its Bible studies in the student center.

         In November, InterVarsity’s national president wrote a letter to Wayne State’s president about the group being derecognized and arguing that Wayne State had selectively enforced its non-discrimination policy against InterVarsity. Wayne State’s Vice President and General Counsel responded briefly and promised to follow up with a more detailed response. InterVarsity sent another email requesting an immediate solution, noting its desire to participate in an upcoming student recruitment event. Wayne State responded that they should be able to solve the problem and “reach a mutually amicable arrangement, ” but it was aware of no major recruitment events in the next six months. InterVarsity sent an email noting that WinterFest, a group recruitment event, was being held on January 24. InterVarsity explained that it continued to suffer hardships as a result of being derecognized and requested provisional reinstatement while they negotiated. Wayne State responded that it would not provisionally reinstate InterVarsity but that the group could participate in WinterFest by reserving a vendor table. InterVarsity paid a fee and secured a vendor space, which was located in a different area some distance from the other student groups.

         The Christian Fellowship and its Wayne State chapter filed this lawsuit on March 6, 2018 against the Board of Governors of Wayne State University, as well as each of its members, the Dean of Students, and the Coordinator of Student Life and Student Organization Services, in both their official and individual capacities.[1]

         The complaint lists 20 counts, which allege violations of: the First Amendment’s Religion, Speech, and Assembly Clauses, as well as the corresponding provisions under Article 1 of the Michigan Constitution; Equal Protection and Due Process under the Fourteenth Amendment; the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act; and the Higher Education Act. Initially, Wayne State publicly stated that it derecognized InterVarsity because it violated the university’s nondiscrimination policy; subsequently, Wayne State re-recognized InterVarsity as a student group and reimbursed it for the amounts incurred while derecognized.

         II. STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” A Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the sufficiency of a complaint. Riverview Health Inst. LLC v. Med. Mut. of Ohio, 601 F.3d 505, 512 (6th Cir. 2010). A court may dismiss a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “To state a valid claim, a complaint must contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory.” Boland v. Holder, 682 F.3d 531, 534 (6th Cir. 2012) (emphasis removed) (citing League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Bredesen, 500 F.3d 523, 527 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a litigant must allege enough facts to make it plausible that the defendant bears legal liability.” Agema v. City of Allegan, 826 F.3d 326, 331 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court “must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept all factual allegations as true, and determine whether the complaint contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” United States v. Brookdale Senior Living Cmtys., Inc., 892 F.3d 822, 830 (6th Cir. 2018) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The court does not, however, “accept as true . . . ‘legal conclusions or unwarranted factual inferences.’” Theile v. Michigan, 891 F.3d 240, 243 (6th Cir. 2018) (quoting Mixon v. Ohio, 193 F.3d 389, 400 (6th Cir. 1999)).

         “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief . . . [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. The issue to be resolved is “not whether [the plaintiff] will ultimately prevail . . . but whether his complaint [i]s sufficient to cross the federal court’s threshold.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 530 (2011) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974); citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2002)). “A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is disfavored, especially when one's civil rights are at stake.” McGlone v. Bell, 681 F.3d 718, 728 (6th Cir. 2012) (citing Nuchols v. Berrong, 141 Fed.Appx. 451, 453 (6th Cir. 2005); Westlake v. Lucas, 537 F.2d 857, 858 (6th Cir. 1976)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         Wayne State moves to dismiss the complaint in its entirety under Rule 12(b)(6) and argues that some claims additionally merit dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1). (ECF No. 6, PageID.96.) At oral argument, Wayne State grouped the counts in the complaint into three categories: (1) religion claims, (2) speech claims, and (3) miscellaneous ...


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