Federal Court: University Of Iowa Illegally Discriminated Against Christian Student Groups

Federal Court: University Of Iowa Illegally Discriminated Against Christian Student Groups

Court documents revealed the public university kept a ‘watch list’ of student groups on probation. All of the groups on the list were religious.
Nicole Russell
By

On Wednesday, a federal court ruled that the University of Iowa had illegally targeted religious groups for requiring their leaders to follow their faith. As such, Business Leaders in Christ (BLC), a Christian student group on the University of Iowa’s campus, secured a permanent place on campus.

At the hearing February 1, it was clear the university had not only kicked BLC off campus because of their expression of faith, but had targeted and blacklisted 31 other student groups— only religious ones. The court ruled that the university must stop its unequal treatment of religious student organizations in the name of “anti-discrimination.”

While in court, the University of Iowa admitted to a bombshell: They had been keeping a “watch list” of 32 groups placed on “probationary status.” Every one of the student groups on the list was religious in nature. The list appeared when the court asked the university to identify all the groups that would be affected by a ruling against BLC, and in favor of the University of Iowa’s decision to remove the group after deeming their religious beliefs “discriminatory.”

Under the university’s policy, “religious registered student organizations are not permitted to require their leaders to agree with and live by the organization’s religious beliefs.” This blatant government animus against religious groups on taxpayer-funded college campuses is a direct violation of students’ First Amendment rights and demonstrates significant disdain for religious people, who have every right to gather and express their faith on a public campus.

A closer look at the university’s student groups illustrates UI’s double standard. UI boasts nearly 600 registered student groups on campus, ranging from Alpha Phi Alpha and the Bass Fishing Team to the Food Pantry at Iowa and the Mock Trial Club. It includes dozens of secular groups, which explicitly restrict or control access to leadership or membership based on categories like race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and U.S. military service.

The university allows non-religious student groups to admit only leaders and members who align with each group’s mission, including those of fraternities, sports clubs, musical groups, advocacy organizations, political groups, and minority support groups. For example, the university allows the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Chinese Dance Club, Chinese in Iowa City group, and Chinese Music Club to remain on campus as unified, recognized groups, while the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship faced being kicked off campus just for their faith.

It’s no more discriminatory to require students to be Christians when joining “Christian Bible Fellowship” than it is to require members of the “Iowa Men’s Hockey Club” to exhibit an interest in hockey.

Despite the large number of registered student groups, the university’s blacklist only features the names of Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and other religious student clubs, placing them on probationary status until the court ruled Wednesday. Had the court agreed that it was okay for the university to kick BLC off campus, they could have disbanded the remaining 32 religious groups—just for requiring their members to be religious.

Many names on the blacklist include mainstream groups of various faiths, most of which operate in colleges and universities nationwide, such as: Chabad Jewish Student Association, Athletes in Action, Campus Bible Fellowship, Christian Legal Society, CRU, Muslim Students Association, and InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship.

Before the ruling, the University of Iowa claimed they had not been discriminatory at all:

The university agreed with counsel for BLinC and InterVarsity to place the review of religious organization constitutions on hold once the InterVarsity lawsuit was filed against the university with the understanding that plaintiffs’ counsel would not file any further lawsuits Pertaining to this issue pending the decision by the court in BLinC.

The university has maintained the registered status of all religious and faith-based groups allowing them full access to all benefits, funding, facilities, and resources that are offered to all other student organizations on campus. Therefore, the university has not placed any religious student organization on ‘probationary status’ as insinuated by BLinC’s legal counsel.

However, it was clear from court filings that the university intended to kick all the religious groups off campus if courts gave them a favorable ruling. How ironic that while in trial defending themselves from the evidence showing the university had discriminated against BLC and other student groups because of their religious beliefs, the watch list demonstrates the university has been doing exactly the same thing. Thankfully, the federal court saw right through this.

In a statement, Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, a nonprofit law firm representing BLC, said, “The university wanted a license to discriminate, and Judge Rose said no way. This ruling is a win for basic fairness, but it is also an eloquent plea for civility in how governments treat Americans in all their diversity. As a governmental body bound by the First Amendment, the university should have never tried to get into the game of playing favorites in the first place, and it is high time for it to stop now.”

Nicole Russell is a senior contributor to The Federalist. She lives in northern Virginia with her four kids. Follow her on Twitter @russell_nm.

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