A federal judge has ruled that the University of Iowa (UI) violated the First Amendment rights of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) when it deregistered IVCF for allegedly breaching its Human Rights Policy. The university specifically took issue with the fact that IVCF required its leaders to affirm its statement of faith. While she did not grant everything IVCF asked for in the suit, U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie M. Rose ruled that UI unfairly targeted InterVarsity while tolerating violations from other groups.
“No group—religious or secular—could survive with leaders who reject its values,” said Greg Jao, who is the Director of External Relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. “We’re grateful the court has stopped the University’s religious discrimination, and we look forward to continuing our ministry on campus for years to come.”
Why InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Came Under Scrutiny
InterVarsity’s lawsuit, filed in August 2018, came about as a result of an earlier case, BLinC vs. University of Iowa, one on which Rose also ruled. The Gazette reports that in 2017, UI deregistered the student group Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) for preventing an openly gay student from holding a leadership position. UI claimed that BLinC was violating its Human Rights Policy, which states the following:
[I]n no aspect of [the University’s] programs shall there be differences in the treatment of persons because of race, creed, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, disability, genetic information, status as a U.S. veteran, service in the U.S. military, sexual orientation, gender identity, associational preferences, or any other classification that deprives the person of consideration as an individual.
BLinC in turn claimed that UI was violating its First Amendment rights “to freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of religious exercise.” The court ended up finding that UI had not reprimanded or deregistered “a large number” of student organizations that were limiting membership for various reasons banned in the Human Rights Policy. Rose determined that the university was therefore unfairly targeting BLinC and ordered officials to stop discriminating against particular groups. Following that ruling, UI began, says The Gazette, a “sweeping review of more than 500 UI student groups.”
One result of this review was that university officials deregistered over 30 student groups, including InterVarsity. InterVarsity filed a lawsuit, also accusing UI of violating their First Amendment rights and seeking damages for harm caused to their recruiting efforts and their ability to “prepare for ministry in the coming school year.”
Judge Rose’s Ruling
“Nothing about this case warrants a different outcome than that reached in the BLinC Case,” wrote Rose. She said that the university claimed to apply its Human Rights Policy fairly, but in reality had discriminated against IVCF while giving other groups a free pass. Student groups that were allowed to state their views on issues such as gender, race, and religion included the Iowa Edge Student Organization, the Tau Sigma Military Dental Club, and the Women in Science and Engineering Ambassadors. The judge also mentioned Love Works, a group that requires its members to be LGBTQ-affirming.
Rose stated that UI failed to establish IVCF had harmed the university through its policies, but that IVCF successfully showed how UI had caused harm to its organization. Said Rose, “It is difficult to understand how the University could have narrowly tailored its response to InterVarsity’s leadership requirements without knowing or understanding the harms they caused.”
The judge also expressed shock that university officials had continued the same discriminatory behavior identified in the BLnC case. She wrote, “The Court does not know how a reasonable person could have concluded this was acceptable” and also said, “The Court would never have expected the University to respond to that order by homing in on religious groups’ compliance with the policy while at the same time carving out explicit exemptions for other groups. But here we are.”
The defendants in the case were the university’s president, Bruce Harreld, Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers, Associate Dean of Student Organizations William R. Nelson, Coordinator for Student Organization Development Andrew Kutcher, and Student Misconduct and Title IX Investigator Thomas R. Baker. Judge Rose ruled that Nelson, Shivers and Kutcher were to be held personally liable for damages IVCF suffered as a result of their actions. While she did not find enough evidence to hold Baker and Harreld liable at this time, they could still be held responsible in the future, depending on how IVCF chooses to proceed.
It’s worth noting that Judge Rose’s ruling depends on the fact that university leaders were inconsistent with how they applied the college’s Human Rights Policy. InterVarsity and similar groups could be lawfully targeted in the future should officials apply the Human Rights Policy to all student groups equally.