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The Story

Christian student clubs continue to prevail in court against the unjust religious discrimination of university officials.

The Background

On July 16, a panel of three judges on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeal backed up a lower federal court ruling that state colleges and universities can’t selectively deregister student organizations. The ruling came in the case of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. University of Iowa.

For more than 25 years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has been active at the University of Iowa. Although membership and participation in the school’s chapter of InterVarsity is open to all students, those who seek to serve in leadership roles are required to affirm a statement of faith, which includes a belief in the “unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible.”

In 2018, the University of Iowa deregistered InterVarsity and numerous other religious groups—including Muslims and Sikhs—because of their requirement that their leaders agree with their religious beliefs. The university determined that requiring an organization’s leaders to share its faith was “noncompliant” with university non-discrimination policies. The University of Iowa gave InterVarsity two weeks to change its constitution. The group refused, and Becket, a nonprofit law firm that protects the free expression of all faiths, sued the school on behalf of InterVarsity.

Becket points out that as in the cases of InterVarsity v. Wayne State and BLinC v. University of Iowa, the University of Iowa justified its targeting of religious clubs by accusing the clubs of “discrimination” for wanting their leadership to share their values.

Yet the schools permitted other organizations (such as sororities, fraternities, and political or activist groups) to consider criteria such as a student’s sex, race, or ideology in the selection of club leadership and membership. Some groups were even permitted to base membership on religious beliefs. As the federal court notes in its ruling, “LoveWorks requires its members and leaders to sign a ‘gay-affirming statement of Christian faith.’ Despite that requirement—which violates the Human Rights Policy just as much as InterVarsity’s—the University did nothing.

“We are hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination (‘When the government targets not subject matter, but particular views taken by speakers on a subject, the violation of the First Amendment is all the more blatant’),” added the judges. “The University’s choice to selectively apply the Human Rights Policy against InterVarsity suggests a preference for certain viewpoints—like those of LoveWorks—over InterVarsity’s. The University focused its ‘clean up’ on specific religious groups and then selectively applied the Human Rights Policy against them. Other groups were simply glossed over or ignored.”

Why It Matters

As Becket notes, this victory, as well as similar wins in InterVarsity v. Wayne State and BLinC v. University of Iowa, provide a warning to university officials that they can be held personally responsible for choosing to enact or enforce blatantly unconstitutional policies.

“Schools are supposed to be a place of free inquiry and open thought, but the school officials here punished opinions they didn’t like and promoted ones they did—all while using taxpayer dollars to do it,” says Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “The good news is that they’ve been held accountable, and school officials nationwide are on notice. We are optimistic that in the future, colleges will pursue policies of accommodation, not discrimination, when it comes to religious exercise on campus.”

Christian student groups have the same right to associate on public university campuses as any other group. But Christians on campus should be aware of how to protect their freedoms.

In most circumstances, universities cannot expel religious groups from campus merely because the groups want their members or leaders to agree with the group’s religious beliefs. Overly broad “nondiscrimination” policies may violate student groups’ rights of association. But the Supreme Court has said a college may restrict students’ free association if it has an “all comers” policy, meaning that all students must be allowed to join and lead all groups.

According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a critical task for a new student group is to write a constitution and bylaws. These documents define, among other things, who can participate in the group, who can be a member, and who can be a leader. The purpose of placing limits on who is eligible to lead or vote is to preserve the character of the group.

For example, some Christian groups ask their officers to lead Bible studies. Those groups require their officers to agree with a statement of faith or to demonstrate a commitment to the faith. Doing so helps ensure the officers will be good representatives of Christ and will be able to teach others in accordance with the beliefs of the group.