Three days a week, UW-Madison senior Billy Burnside attends anatomy class in an auditorium at Agriculture Hall.

Thursday nights, he's often back in the same room praying and singing alongside dozens of classmates as a student leader with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

The national evangelical organization, based in Madison, has a significant presence at UW-Madison and at 575 other campuses across the country. It just completed what it says was a record year nationally of bringing new converts to Christianity.

Yet its presence on campuses is sometimes controversial, highlighting an often uneasy relationship between religious groups and secular universities. In the past two years, InterVarsity's status has been challenged at 41 colleges and universities, said Alec Hill, the organization's president.

Most recently, InterVarsity received a lot of unwanted publicity — and got temporarily de-recognized as a student group — at the State University of New York at Buffalo after the student treasurer of the campus chapter said he was forced out for being gay. It was a painful episode for an organization that prides itself on avoiding confrontation.

"There are some real culture warriors out there who love the fight," Hill said. "That's not us."

Yet the organization is no pushover when it believes its religious freedom is imperiled. Its status on the UW System's 26 campuses, including UW-Madison, is governed by a settlement reached five years ago after InterVarsity sued UW-Superior over campus access.

Student evangelists

InterVarsity operates its national network out of a modest building at 6400 Schroeder Road on Madison's West Side. It employs 156 people there, but the bulk of its employees — another 1,235 — work in the field with students, staffing 893 InterVarsity campus chapters.

Many campuses have multiple chapters. UW-Madison has 14, with one just for faculty members and one for Chinese graduate students.

InterVarsity's mission is to "establish witnessing communities of students and faculty who follow Jesus." It does this primarily by having its student leaders reach out to their classmates.

It encourages those student leaders to continue to live on campus after their freshman year, the better to connect with underclassmen. That's why Burnside, 21, a fifth-year nuclear engineering major, still lives in a dorm.

"Sometimes people look at you like, 'Why aren't you normal enough to have friends and find somewhere else to live?'" he said. "But there's a real upside. By living so close to other students, they get to see you live out your faith day in and day out."

Unusual structure

InterVarsity came through the economic downturn largely unscathed, due in part to its unusual employment structure. Most staff in the field raise 100 percent of their own salaries, tapping family members, friends, churches and InterVarsity alumni.

"During a recession, people are less likely to cut off donations to someone they know," Hill said.

Tim Borgstrom, who oversees the undergraduate chapter at UW-Madison, said he raises his $53,000 annual salary by pitching it to friends as an "awesome investment opportunity" — in their own eternal lives and those of others. With InterVarsity alumni, he often begins by asking for just $5 a month.

"It's been a spiritual discipline that I'm actually really glad for," said Borgstrom, 32.

Record number

Last school year, InterVarsity had 38,814 "core participants," defined as students and faculty members who participate in at least half of a chapter's activities. UW-Madison's 14 chapters had 426 core participants, making it InterVarsity's fifth-largest campus ministry.

Of the national total, a record 3,354 were new converts to Christianity, up 700 over the previous year. Hill speculates the economic slide had something to do with it. The recession shook the confidence and security of middle-class students, sending them more determinedly in search of answers, he said.

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Much of InterVarsity's success in proselytizing hinges on access to students, which is why it fights so hard for official recognition on campuses. Recognition brings legitimacy and practical benefits, from use of campus facilities and the university's name to the ability to take part in freshman orientation and apply for student segregated funds.

Questions of access

Getting and keeping that official recognition is sometimes challenging.

In 2006, UW-Superior turned down InterVarsity's request for funding and official recognition because InterVarsity requires its student leaders to sign a doctrinal statement of faith. The statement says, in part, that the students accept "the unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible."

That requirement, UW-Superior officials said, violated a policy barring formally recognized groups from discriminating on the basis of religion.

InterVarsity sued, arguing the nondiscrimination policy violated its constitutional right to religious freedom and association. It pointed out that only its elected student leaders must agree to follow the Bible. General participation is open to everyone.

"Groups have to be able to select their leaders in order to have self-identity and a clear mission," Hill said. "How could we say to a student, 'You don't have to be a Christian to be one of our leaders?'"

The resulting settlement restored InterVarsity's recognition and let it keep its leadership criteria. The agreement also removed the threat of de-recognition at other UW System campuses.

Moving forward

The settlement eased tensions at UW-Madison, said Jon Dahl, who oversees the graduate and faculty chapters. "Prior to that time, we felt the campus, for whatever reason, was becoming more hostile to us. The lawsuit added a lot of clarity."

Asked how he thinks the university's administration views InterVarsity today, Borgstrom, the undergraduate staff member, said that's a difficult question.

"If we just decided to up and leave, I would want UW to feel a void," he said. "I don't think we're there yet. Right now, I think we're insignificant to university administrators."

Lori Berquam, dean of students at UWMadison, said she feels the university has always had a good working relationship with InterVarsity. She notes there are more than 850 registered student groups.

"It's our hope that students embrace all opportunities for personal exploration," she said. "Spirituality and religion are very individual to each student. I would hope they are exploring that aspect of themselves."

InterVarsity in Buffalo, N.Y. faced controversy over homosexuality

Last December, the student treasurer of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter at the State University of New York at Buffalo told reporters he was pressured to resign for being in a gay relationship. Homosexual activity conflicts with the organization's biblical teachings.

The news ignited a controversy. The student senate de-recognized the group for discriminating against a student based on sexual orientation. But in July, the school's student judiciary reinstated InterVarsity.

The judiciary drew a distinction between criteria for members and criteria for leaders. Officially recognized student groups at SUNY Buffalo cannot exclude any student from becoming a member. But the judiciary ruled it is "common sense, not discrimination" for a religious group to want its leaders to adhere to a set of core beliefs.

Participation in InterVarsity events is open to everyone. However, its elected student leaders must sign a document affirming a set of Christian beliefs.

Among the Bible verses the document says student leaders should abide by in their behavior is 1 Corinthians 6: 7-11, which reads in part: "Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."

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