Court Unanimously Rules University Of Iowa Wrongly Discriminated Against Christian Youth Organization

University of Iowa official Facebook cover photo
University of Iowa official Facebook cover photo |

An appeals court has unanimously ruled against the University of Iowa for wrongly discriminating a Christian youth organization.

The Christian Post reported that the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on Friday ruled in favor of two youth organizations--the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship--who sued the University of Iowa for deregistering them as student groups out of "viewpoint discrimination."

"Employees of the University of Iowa targeted religious student organizations for discriminatory enforcement of its Human Rights Policy. After the district court ordered it to stop selectively enforcing the policy against one religious group, the University deregistered another-InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship. InterVarsity filed suit. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court held that University employees violated InterVarsity's First Amendment rights and denied qualified immunity. We affirm," the three-panel judge said in its decision.

"What the University did here was clearly unconstitutional. It targeted religious groups for differential treatment under the Human Rights Policy-while carving out exemptions and ignoring other

violative groups with missions they presumably supported. The University and individual defendants turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence or they proceeded full speed ahead knowing they were violating the law. Either way, qualified immunity provides no safe haven," the Eight Circuit judges concluded.

The case, InterVarsity v. University of Iowa, was filed in 2018 when the university "deregistered" many religious organizations that included the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, as well as Sikh and Muslim groups. The University actually sent a notice to religious groups on June 1, 2018 with the threat of "deregistration" if the groups will not change their constitution.

According to Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who represented the plaintiffs in the case, the University of Iowa found the "group's reasonable requirement that its leaders share its faith" as "noncompliant" to the non-discrimination policies of the university. The university also stressed that the group should not "encourage" their leaders "to believe in and live by its religious mission." Intervarsity would not be able to do as the University wishes since it is contrary to the very purpose and mission of their organization, which is to share and live according to the Christian faith.

The University then deregistered Intervarsity along with 38 other groups the following month. This meant the University eliminated these groups' existence from the campus on the guise of these groups being "discriminatory."

InterVarsity filed the lawsuit in August against the University and its officials thereafter. In particular, against its President Bruce Harreld, Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers, Associate Dean of Student Organizations William Nelson, Coordinator for Student Organization Development Andrew Kutcher, and Student Misconduct and Title IX Investigator Thomas Baker in their respective official and individual capacities.

The federal district court on September 30, 2019 then ruled that the University of Iowa violated the First Amendment, particularly its protection for free exercise of religion, free association, and free speech.

The district court also pointed out that the University of Iowa's officials violated "clearly established law," making them "personally liable for their actions." The case was then appealed this January by the University in the Eight Circuit.

Becket's Senior Counsel Daniel Bloomberg found the Eight Circuit Court's decision as "good news" and as a since it is a "clear" message that universities "must not discriminate against religious student clubs."

"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," Bloomberg said.

"The good news is that they've been held accountable, and school officials nationwide are on notice," he added. "We are optimistic that in the future, colleges will pursue policies of accommodation, not discrimination, when it comes to religious exercise on campus."