University of Iowa wrongly discriminated against Christian student group: appeals court

Students belonging to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship engaging in a Bible study.
Students belonging to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship engaging in a Bible study. | InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA

An appeals court has ruled that the University of Iowa wrongly discriminated against a Christian student group that wanted to choose its leaders and members on the basis of religious belief and is not protected by qualified immunity.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Intervarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship filed suit against the University of Iowa, accusing the school of discriminating against them when they deregistered them as a student group.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued a unanimous ruling on Friday in favor of InterVarsity, arguing that the university engaged in viewpoint discrimination against the Christian group.  

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Circuit Judge Jonathan A. Kobes authored the panel opinion, concluding that he was “hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination.”

“Of course, the University has a compelling interest in preventing discrimination. But it served that compelling interest by picking and choosing what kind of discrimination was okay,” wrote Kobes.

“Basically, some [registered student organizations] at the University of Iowa may discriminate in selecting their leaders and members, but others, mostly religious, may not. If the University honestly wanted a campus free of discrimination, it could have adopted an ‘all-comers’ policy …”

The opinion referenced an earlier decision on behalf of Business Leaders in Christ, which turned away a student because the student, who was openly homosexual, did not want to adhere to the group’s statement of faith.

“Take LoveWorks, for example. It was formed by the student who was denied a leadership role in BLinC. LoveWorks requires its members and leaders to sign a ‘gay-affirming statement of Christian faith,’” noted Kobes.

“Despite that requirement—which violates the Human Rights Policy just as much as InterVarsity’s—the University did nothing.”

Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel for the Becket law firm that helped to represent InterVarsity during the litigation, released a statement on Friday celebrating the appeals court panel ruling.

“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,” stated Blomberg.

“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.”

In March, another three-judge panel from the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of BLinC in their lawsuit against the university, concluding that the defendants did not have qualified immunity on all claims.

“This inquiry takes into account the undisputed facts of the present case: the University’s creation of a limited public forum for student speech and subsequent viewpoint discrimination against BLinC, a student organization, within that forum,” read the March opinion, in part.

“As a result, we hold that the district court erroneously granted the individual defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity on BLinC’s free-speech and expressive-association claims.”

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