Education

Federal judge slams University of Iowa for religious discrimination

'Defendants have not given the court any reason to trust the university'

Students walk past a table for InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship during the University of Iowa Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union. (The Gazette)
Students walk past a table for InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship during the University of Iowa Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — When a federal judge nearly two years ago said the University of Iowa was selectively enforcing its human rights policy against faith-based student groups and ordered it to stop, the campus doubled down and honed its student organization review on those with religious ties, according to new court documents.

Even as the UI denied it was targeting religious groups — such as Business Leaders in Christ, the faith-based student organization it deregistered in 2017 for barring an openly gay student from being a leader — administrators focused their court-compelled review of 500-plus student groups on the religious ones.

“Reviewers were instructed to review religious groups first, and those groups were reviewed twice,” according to a Friday ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie M. Rose barring the UI from deregistering faith-based groups for asking leaders to align with their beliefs.

The ruling — which largely favors plaintiff InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — mirrors an order from the same judge months ago in an initial lawsuit filed by Business Leaders in Christ, or BLINC.

Three UI administrators implicated in case — Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers, Associate Dean of Student Organizations Williams Nelson and Student Organization Development Coordinator Andrew Kutcher — understood an earlier court order barred the university from selectively enforcing its human rights policy against some student groups and not others, according to the court order.

“Yet despite their (accurate) interpretation of that order, Shivers, Nelson, Kutcher and others proceeded to broaden enforcement of the human rights policy in the name of uniformity — applying extra scrutiny to religious groups in the process — while at the same time continuing to allow some groups to operate in violation of the policy,” the order said.

“The court does not know how a reasonable person could have concluded this was acceptable, as it plainly constitutes the same selective application of the human rights policy that the court found constitutionally infirm in the preliminary injunction.”

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Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — the Washington, D.C.-based organization representing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and BLINC in the Iowa City-centered cases — on Monday lauded the verdict, announcing Shivers and her colleagues “must pay out of their own pockets for discriminating against a religious student group.”

Judge Rose didn’t side with InterVarsity on every charge against the UI, but she did find Shivers, Nelson, and Kutcher “violated InterVarsity’s clearly established right to free speech” by deregistering it and about a dozen other religious groups for requiring leaders align with their faith. Therefore, the UI administrators must pay damages, according to the ruling, which left open the possibility UI President Bruce Harreld could be found liable.

‘Largely disengaged’

Although the record doesn’t establish UI President Bruce Harreld’s liability — indicating “it appears he was largely disengaged from the process” — Rose reports Harreld was aware of the court’s order barring uneven enforcement of its human rights policy.

Shivers reported discussing the ruling at least twice with Harreld and noted he “never identified any problems with the review and deregistration process.” Although the court found insufficient evidence of Harreld’s culpability, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship could pursue its arguments against him at trial.

In a statement provided to The Gazette, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — the Washington, D.C.-based organization representing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and BLINC in the Iowa City-centered cases — said InterVarsity is “considering all of its options to ensure religious discrimination does not occur yet again, including whether to pursue its claims against President Harreld.”

UI officials in a statement on Monday said it has revised its student organization policy to allow student groups to require leaders to “agree to and support” the organization’s beliefs.

“The University of Iowa has always respected the right of students, faculty and staff to practice the religion of their choice,” according to the UI statement. “The case involving Business Leaders in Christ and later InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and Intervarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship presented a difficult issue for a public university as administrators tried to balance the rights of all individuals on campus.”

UI officials did not answer questions about how much the university spent litigating the cases and how much they expect to pay InterVarsity and BLINC, per the court orders.

Case origins

This case — which snowballed into dozens of deregistrations, shifted UI practice and policy, incited two lawsuits, and set national precedent — started in late 2017 when UI officials deregistered BLINC after a student said he was barred from becoming a leader for being openly gay.

The university accused BLINC of violating its human rights policy, while BLINC accused it of violating its First Amendment rights, among other things.

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BLINC’s lawsuit contended the university had an uncovered Iowa’s uneven enforcement of its human rights policy, according to the federal court.

Zeta Beta Tau, for example, requires recruits to attain a “positive 70 percent vote of members” to join, while any recruit identifying as a “man of Jewish faith” needs only “50.5 percent positive vote.”

Pi Kappa Phi states the fraternity should be composed on men “of good moral character, believers in God, the highest ideals of Christian manhood,” according to the court order. And Love Works — a student group founded by the openly gay student who filed the complaint about BLINC — requires its leaders be LGBTQ affirming.

That revelation sparked the sweeping review of more than 500 UI student groups, the discovery many were out of compliance with UI policies, and the deregistration of dozens, including InterVarsity, prompting its subsequent lawsuit.

Both rulings in the BLINC and Intervarsity cases leave open the door for UI to deregister them if so long as the institution treats all student groups the same. But, according to the ruling, UI cannot enforce its human rights policy against faith-based student groups based on their leadership standards as long as it continues to allow other student organizations exceptions from the policy.

“The injunction does not grant InterVarsity a special exemption if the university applies the human rights policy in a manner permitted by the constitution,” according to the judge’s order.

New law

In fighting InterVarsity’s push for a court-ordered prohibition against religious discrimination going forward, UI officials cited new legislation passed in the most recent session prohibiting the state’s universities from denying group benefits or privileges based on membership or leadership requirements.

UI officials said a court order is now unnecessary because the new law will prevent future violations. But Judge Rose said she has no faith UI will follow the new law.

“Defendants have not given the court any reason to trust the university will implement the new law in a manner that protects its students civil liberties,” according to Rose’s order. “The court would never have expected the university to respond to (its) order by homing in on religious groups’ compliance with the policy while at the same time carving out explicit exemptions for other groups.

“But here we are,” the judge wrote.

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While InterVarsity proved irreparable harm caused by UI actions, including membership declines and reputational damage, UI “has not identified any actual harm to its interest caused by InterVarsity’s religious leadership requirements.”

“The university did not discuss what harms would be caused if InterVarsity were permitted to continue imposing its requirements,” according to the order, which noted no student has every complained about InterVarsity’s leadership requirements.

Although the UI argued that all it asks “is that students are not excluded from any group on the basis of protected characteristics,” Rose wrote, “Of course, this is not true.”

“There are many (registered student organizations) for which the university does not ask ‘that students are not excluded ... on the basis of protected characteristic(s),’” according to the order.

In a statement provided by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Greg Jao — director of external relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which has been on the UI campus for more than a quarter century — stressed, “We must have leaders who share our faith.”

“No group — religious or secular — could survive with leaders who reject its values,” he said. “We’re grateful the court has stopped the university’s religious discrimination, and we look forward to continuing our ministry on campus for years to come.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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