InterVarsity joins religious beliefs fight against University of Iowa

Christian groups say the UI is discriminating against them

Stephen Mally/The Gazette

The Pentacrest, including the Old Capitol, Jessup Hall, Macbride Hall, MacLean Hall and Schae
Stephen Mally/The Gazette The Pentacrest, including the Old Capitol, Jessup Hall, Macbride Hall, MacLean Hall and Schaeffer Hall, in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on July 14, 2016.

IOWA CITY — A recent University of Iowa purge of student groups refusing to ditch requirements that leaders share the group’s beliefs unfairly targets religious organizations, according to one that is joining the fight in federal court.

InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court accusing the UI — like another Christian student organization did last fall — of impinging on its constitutional rights by stripping it of “valuable rights and benefits” including access to student fees and the ability to recruit on campus.

On June 15, the UI deregistered InterVarsity Graduate, which has been on campus for 25 years, along with 38 other student groups that failed to comply with stricter enforcement of the university’s human rights policies. Nine more have since complied, bringing the deregistered total to 30.

Last fall, Business Leaders in Christ — a Christian-based campus group that goes by BLinC — sued the school. BLinC’s lawsuit accused the UI of discrimination after administrators deregistered it for barring an openly gay student from becoming a group leader.

That student filed a complaint, and the university responded. But BLinC leaders told a federal judge that other student groups also require leaders share beliefs and values, arguing they were singled out.

The judge agreed and — although that case remains set for trial — ordered BLinC be let back on campus for now.

In an attempt to more evenly enforce its human rights policy, the UI reviewed 513 student organization constitutions over the winter and found 356 did not have the “full and correct human rights clause.”

Administrators emailed those groups, giving them until June 15 to update their documents. Fraternities and sororities have until Sept. 4 to — for the first time — draft constitutions, which must comply with the UI human rights clause. But the UI is granting a permanent exemption from its sex discrimination policy to Greek chapters and men and women sports clubs.

InterVarsity Graduate in its lawsuit said its non-compliance was intentional, as it believes the university is discriminating against religious groups and violating constitutional rights.

UI officials, according to the lawsuit, said they recognize “the wish to have leadership requirements based on Christian beliefs” but stand firm that religion-related leadership restrictions are impermissible.

The group is based in Madison, Wis., and has more than 1,000 chapters on hundreds of U.S. campuses, including many in Iowa. Other Iowa chapters, including at Iowa State University, still are allowed to restrict leadership to only those who agree with the group’s core beliefs and values.

Those beliefs, as outlined in the ISU InterVarsity constitution, include recognition of “The only true God, the almighty creator of all things, existing eternally in three persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The group also believes in the “unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible.”

Although membership in the ISU chapter is open, like at the UI, its leadership ranks are reserved for those whose “personal beliefs and conduct of life do not conflict with the purposes, values and moral standards of the InterVarsity organization.”

ISU officials did not immediately respond Tuesday to questions of whether it has concerns about such language being discriminatory.

On the UI campus, InterVarsity has two other chapters — Multiethnic Undergrad Hawkeye InterVarsity, known as Black Campus Ministries, and International Neighbors. Those two were not deregistered.

A review by The Gazette found those chapters did amend their constitutions to include the UI human rights clause. Neither now include faith-based stipulations in their constitutional sections titled “leaders” or “officers.”

But they included in their “operations” and “elections” sections that leadership applications will ask candidates “to express their views on matters that are necessary for advancing the purpose and core beliefs of the chapter.”

UI officials did not respond to any questions from The Gazette, noting they don’t comment on pending litigation.

InterVarsity Graduate leaders argue deregistration harms them in several ways, including suffering a “discriminatory stigma” and loss of equal access to graduate and professional students during orientation events and student organization fairs.

The UI graduate student fair is Aug. 15 and the registered student organization fair is Aug. 30.

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