Arizona State University has taken disciplinary action against five student clubs accused of being “front groups” for a Tempe church founded by a controversial campus ministry in Tucson.
The student clubs, which are registered with ASU as secular organizations, are actually ministries of Hope Christian Church, the university determined.
The church claimed it wasn’t formally affiliated with the clubs in an Arizona Daily Star investigation earlier this year. The Star recently obtained the misconduct rulings through a public records request.
The clubs were placed on disciplinary probation for four years and are banned during that time from campus residence halls, where some ASU students have reported run-ins with aggressive church solicitors.
Each of the clubs — Outlaw Comedy, Sun Devil Survivor, Man Up, WOW Factor and Sun Devils Wear Prada — must now disclose in all communications that “it is a ministry of Hope Christian Church,” the ASU rulings say.
Hope’s head pastor, former Tucsonan Brian R. Smith, wouldn’t comment on the university’s findings, nor would Corey Vale, chairman of the church’s board of directors.
Each provided an email statement that says ASU is meeting with student group leaders “to determine the best path forward. Since these meetings are still ongoing we cannot comment further at this time.”
The church and the clubs have been under scrutiny since last summer, when 14 people including eight current ASU students filed a 123-page complaint with the university. It described Hope as a “bona fide cult” that uses sexual shaming and other forms of psychological manipulation to exert control over its members’ lives.
One of the complaints is from an ASU alumnus from Tucson.
Church leaders dispute the complaints and say Hope is being unfairly maligned. Vale told the Star earlier this year that some of the allegations “are simply an attempt from outside detractors to promote religious discrimination and intolerance through bullying and hate speech.”
The complaint called the student clubs “front groups” that staged secular events such as comedy nights, fashion shows and wilderness competitions to obtain the contact information of unsuspecting freshmen, which was then turned over to the church for use in its solicitations.
While the allegations against the clubs have been settled, ASU has yet to rule on seven misconduct charges pending against the church itself, including hazing — described as “acts of mental harm, personal degradation and embarrassment” — stalking, unauthorized entry to student housing, unauthorized use of student information, and discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.
Hope, which takes in more than $1 million a year in donations, has a lot to lose if the disciplinary charges are upheld.
The church, which has no building of its own, holds virtually all its services on campus rent-free in meeting space provided by ASU. That decade-old arrangement would come to a halt if Hope is found to have committed misconduct.
E. Jay Richardson, head of the Council of Religious Advisors at ASU’s Tempe campus, said the council intends to hold a vote on whether to revoke Hope’s membership once all outstanding disciplinary matters are settled.
Despite the complaints, Hope has many supporters. Several are ASU faculty members and administrators who belong to the church and serve as employee advisors to the ASU student clubs involved in misconduct, public records show.
It isn’t clear if the club advisors will face disciplinary action. “ASU does not comment on matters related to employee discipline,” university spokeswoman Herminia Rincon told the Star.
Hope was established in 2004 as a satellite of Faith Christian Church in Tucson, which runs a campus ministry at the University of Arizona that 20 former members described as a cult in a 2015 Star investigation.
Smith, Hope’s founding pastor, is a former elder and associate pastor at Faith Christian who solicited students on the UA campus in the 1980s.
Smith told the Star earlier this year that Hope cut ties with the Tucson church soon after the Tempe church was founded and went on to build “a new, healthy ministry culture.”