A federal judge ruled Sept. 27 that the University of Iowa discriminated against the school’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter by refusing to allow the group to meet on campus. In accordance with the ruling, university officials are required to reimburse InterVarsity out of their own pockets for any legal fees.
InterVarsity has been on the University of Iowa campus for 25 years, hosting Bible studies, prayer meetings, worship services and facilitating in-depth discussions on relevant social issues. But in June 2018, the university claimed that by requiring its leaders to uphold Christian beliefs, InterVarsity was violating the school’s nondiscrimination policy.
The university limited InterVarsity’s access to campus, froze its bank account, shut down its website and advertised that it was a “defunct” group due to lack of student interest.
Other religious groups, such as the Sikh Awareness Club, Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, Imam Mahdi organization and Latter-day Saint Student Association, were also kicked off campus.
“We must have leaders who share our faith,” said Greg Jao, director of external relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. “No group—religious or secular—could survive with leaders who reject its values.”
All religious groups were temporarily reinstated after InterVarsity filed suit, but the university did not offer the groups assurance of a permanent solution.
“In the name of nondiscrimination, the University of Iowa discriminated against more than a dozen diverse religious groups—including Christians, Muslims and Sikhs,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, the law firm that represented InterVarsity. “… The university has—quite rightly—long respected the differences inherent in Greek groups, sports clubs and ideological groups. The First Amendment requires the University to do the same for religious groups.”
U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie M. Rose chastised the university, calling its conduct “ludicrous” and “incredibly baffling” during the hearing last week.
She referenced a previous ruling against the school in a lawsuit brought by the Christian student group Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC). Just last February, Rose, who also oversaw that case, ruled that the University of Iowa could not enforce its nondiscrimination policy against BLinC because it would not permit a homosexual student to become a leader due to his opposition to the group’s Biblical views of marriage and sexuality.
“[I] would never have expected the university to respond to that order by honing in on religious groups,” wrote Rose. “… Ultimately, the Court granted BLinC summary judgment on its First Amendment free speech, free association and free exercise claims. … University nondiscrimination policies are not viewpoint neutral if they are selectively applied to restrict the leadership and/or membership requirements of some student groups but not others.”
“It’s too bad it took twice for the university to learn its lesson,” Blomberg said. “There was no excuse the first time for squashing students’ First Amendment rights. University officials nationwide should now take note that religious discrimination will hit them in the pocketbook.”