After the University of Iowa admitted in court that it discriminates against religious student groups, the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship asked a federal court yesterday to permanently require equal treatment for all organizations. The case, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. University of Iowa, arose after more than a dozen student religious groups were purged by the University last summer for asking their leaders to affirm their respective faiths. The Sikh Awareness Club, Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, Imam Mahdi organization, and Latter-day Saint Student Association were among the other faith groups kicked off campus. All religious groups were temporarily reinstated after InterVarsity filed suit, but the university continues to resist a permanent fix and insist that it can treat religious groups different from other groups.
Last summer’s purge came after the university took the hard-line stance that a religious group is guilty of religious discrimination when it asks its leaders to affirm the group’s religious beliefs or even “encourages” them to do so. But recently, the university admitted in court that it:
- Gives “many exceptions” from its nondiscrimination rules for “various clubs, sports teams, and even scholarship programs”;
- Allows many groups to engage in “apparent violations” of its rules, such as by discriminating on such bases as sex, race, and nationality, if they “provide safe spaces for minorities” or support the University’s unspecified “educational and social purposes”;
- Permits the largest groups on campus—fraternities and sororities, which constitute almost 20 percent of the student body—to remain single-sex, as well as sports clubs, acapella groups, and various other university programs;
- “[F]reely admits” that its treatment of student groups “is inconsistent.”
“In the name of non-discrimination, the University of Iowa discriminated against more than a dozen diverse religious groups–including Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, which represents InterVarsity. “That’s Orwellian. Real diversity requires real differences. The University has – quite rightly – long respected the differences inherent in Greek groups, sports clubs, and ideological groups. The First Amendment requires the University to do the same for religious groups.”
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has been on the University of Iowa campus for over 25 years, hosting Bible studies, worship services, and discussions on important religious and social issues. It is one of the largest contributors to the annual C.R.O.P. walk to combat global poverty. The group welcomes all students to join as members and only requires its leaders to follow its Christian faith. In 25 years, no student has ever complained about its leadership selection standards. There are over 500 student groups at the University, including numerous religious, cultural, political, and ideological groups that have long been allowed to choose leaders who share their mission.
“InterVarsity seeks to serve the University of Iowa, its students and faculty, and the local community,” said Greg Jao, Director of External Relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. “We invite the university to embrace a common-sense understanding of its non-discrimination policy. The policy should protect, rather than penalize, religious groups that seek to retain their religious identity on campus.”
At Becket’s request, the university agreed to allow InterVarsity and all other deregistered religious groups to temporarily remain on campus during the pendency of existing litigation. A final decision could come before March 2019.