Judge: Christian Group Can Be Led by Christians
October 01, 2019
By Katherine Beck Johnson, FRC's Research Fellow for Legal and Policy Studies
The InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship is a Christian student group that serves 772 campuses across the country, providing weekly Bible studies, prayer, worship, and fellowship. They also seek to serve others in the community with their fundraisers, including being the top fundraiser for C.R.O.P., a charity that works to alleviate global poverty. InterVarsity has been a part of the University of Iowa's campus for 25 years and has contributed significantly to the community. Yet, despite the organization's positive contributions, the faculty at University of Iowa believed that InterVarsity did not deserve to be on campus simply because they wanted to adhere to their professed Christian faith.
InterVarsity invites and welcomes people of all faiths and walks of life to join their fellowship. The only requirement is that student leaders share a biblical faith in Christ and agree to live as a Christ follower, which is the purpose and mission of InterVarsity. It would only seem logical that a group would want the leaders to share their beliefs. It would certainly seem incongruent for a Muslim to lead a Jewish organization or an atheist to be the head of a Christian ministry. Yet, that is exactly what the Associate Dean and Director of Student Life at the University of Iowa did; forced organizations to allow those in leadership who were hostile to their stated mission or leave the campus.
As a result, the University of Iowa deregistered InterVarsity, claiming its faith tenets made it "non-compliant" with the University's "nondiscrimination" policy. The University proceeded to retaliate against the Christian organization by limiting their access to campus, freezing their bank account, and shutting down their website. The University sent a clear message to InterVarsity: give up your beliefs or stay out of the public square. Thankfully, a federal district judge's ruling has put a stop to this and reminded the University of Iowa that it too must follow the First Amendment.
The central constitutional question in the case was whether a university violates a student group's right to free speech or freedom of association in a limited public forum when it enforces its nondiscrimination policy to limit the group's ability to choose its leaders but allows other nonreligious groups to restrict membership or leadership. As Judge Stephanie Rose held, the University of Iowa's actions clearly constituted religious discrimination against InterVarsity. Under the university's policy, all non-religious groups such as political groups, sororities, and fraternities could require their leaders to adhere to the beliefs of the organization. Meanwhile, they required 38 religious groups to follow the "nondiscrimination" policy but exempted "a few religious groups favored by the University." The university and its officers violated the law when they kicked InterVarsity off campus for asking its leaders to be authentically Christian.
Not only did Judge Rose rule in favor of InterVarsity by holding that the University violated the law, but she held that the act was so egregious that its officials were not shielded by a doctrine known as "qualified immunity." One of the questions in determining whether qualified immunity applies is whether government officials violated "clearly established" constitutional rights. In this case, Judge Rose found that the First Amendment free speech right had been so clearly established that there was no justification for the actions by the university. Because qualified immunity did not apply, the government officials (university administrators in this case) were personally liable to pay the costs incurred by InterVarsity in defending its rights. Judge Rose wrote that she "did not know how a reasonable person could have concluded this was acceptable."
Yet, this trend of limiting free speech is spreading, particularly on college campuses. Recently, Georgia Gwinnett College told a student he could only share his Christian faith in certain "free speech zones." In Michigan, an honors student in Eastern Michigan University's counseling program was kicked out of school after she refused to counsel a client about his homosexual relationship because she was Christian. Universities must not attempt to silent students, including those that are religious. This growing intolerance and bullying towards people who adhere to their faith is unacceptable, especially when it is propagated by the government.
Judge Rose's InterVarsity decision shows how the University of Iowa so clearly violated the First Amendment and serves as a reminder and warning to public universities that limiting the constitutional rights of their students will not be tolerated. Students do not forfeit their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of religion when studying at government-run, public universities. We welcome this win for religious liberty and common sense.