EXPLAINER: Federal Court strikes down discrimination against religious student groups on college campus

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In a unanimous decision, the federal court for the 8th Circuit held that administrators at the University of Iowa are violating the First Amendment by removing Christian, Muslim, and Sikh student organizations for choosing student leaders who share the group’s mission and values. The court’s ruling of InterVarsity v. University of Iowa follows a series of recent decisions that uphold the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and specifically rejects skewed applications of anti-discrimination policies based on a leader’s viewpoints. 


What is this case about?

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has thrived on the University of Iowa’s campus for 25 years with the mission of “courageously proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior, engaging in discipleship around Scripture, and loving people of every ethnicity and culture.” The University of Iowa chapter of InterVarsity has been recognized for its excellence in community service and student engagement, but on June 1, 2018, the university threatened deregistration for violating nondiscrimination policies. 

It is only logical for an organization’s leaders to share its beliefs and priorities, and the process of determining a leader’s position based on his or her ability to further a group’s mission has never been deemed “discriminatory,” at least not under the law. After InterVarsity responded with a reasonable appeal and explanation, the university deregistered the group and barred it from operating on campus. The university went as far as to say the group was engaging in discriminatory activity by simply “encouraging” students to live by a shared mission. Thirty-eight other student groups, mostly religious, were deregistered that summer for noncompliant leadership requirements. Becket sued the university on behalf of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on Aug. 6, 2018, and InterVarsity v. University of Iowa was decided unanimously in favor of InterVarsity on July 16, 2021.

This case protects students and organizations from differential treatment based on university officials’ viewpoints. Universities are spaces for the competition of ideas, but at the University of Iowa, administrators imposed their own opposing views on religious groups. Political and ideological groups, sororities and fraternities, and sports clubs, who used similar vetting processes for leaders, were left untouched. The 8th Circuit left no room for discussion about the constitutionality of this oppressive strategy. Hopefully, the uncontested decision sends a clear message to other university, college, and high school administrators that a public institution must remain a place where students learn and share ideas independent from a leader’s preferential control. If educators at the University of Iowa want a closed environment, they should look for a job at a private institution. 


What does this mean moving forward?

According to Becket, this the third case of its kind in recent months (InterVarsity v. Wayne State and BLinC v. University of Iowa). The increase in religious freedom cases communicates a couple of important messages. First, constitutional rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religious exercise, and freedom of association are being challenged frequently, especially on college campuses. Secondly, lower courts are following the lead of the current Supreme Court and hearing cases related to these foundational freedoms in an effort to clear up any gray areas with increasing enforcement of antidiscrimination policies in public institutions and municipalities. 

Ultimately, the decision affirms students’ First Amendment rights while attending public universities and denies leaders of any public institution the ability to define discrimination based on personal views. According to Becket, “the Court communicated the extremity if the University’s overreach, saying it would be “hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination.” Nondiscrimination policies are meant to protect, not to create a new form of oppression based on who the person in power wants to accommodate.

The ERLC continues to stand for the religious liberty of all in the U.S. and throughout the world and will continue working to ensure that religious liberty is honored and protected.

ERLC intern Anna Claire Noblitt contributed to this article.

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