Education

University of Iowa struggles over faith-based student groups

Students walk past a table Thursday evening for InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship during the University of Iowa Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. The UI cited the faith-based group with failing to comply with the university’s human rights policy, and the group sued. InterVarsity, which has been on the UI campus for a quarter century, is back on campus — and recruiting new members — at least for now while the lawsuit proceeds. (KC McGinnis/freelance)
Students walk past a table Thursday evening for InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship during the University of Iowa Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. The UI cited the faith-based group with failing to comply with the university’s human rights policy, and the group sued. InterVarsity, which has been on the UI campus for a quarter century, is back on campus — and recruiting new members — at least for now while the lawsuit proceeds. (KC McGinnis/freelance)
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IOWA CITY — Long before the University of Iowa last fall kicked off campus a religious student group for barring a gay member from becoming one of its leaders, UI administrators held that faith-based organizations could indeed enforce ideological mandates.

“A student religious group is entitled to require a statement of faith as a pre-condition for joining the group,” former UI Associate Dean of Students Thomas R. Baker wrote in 2004 to an attorney representing a prospective student group, the Christian Legal Society.

The UI recently reversed that position, placing the school in a legal faceoff with two faith-based student groups — including InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, an international enterprise with more than 1,000 chapters on hundreds of U.S. campuses. It has been at the UI for 25 years and has chapters at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.

“Having a restriction on leadership related to religious beliefs is contradictory to (the human rights) clause” of UI policy, Andy Kutcher, the university’s coordinator for student organization development, in June told a representative for InterVarsity in an email.

But administrators didn’t always think so, a position they made clear after UI Student Government in 2003 refused to recognize the Christian Legal Society because its constitution did not include the UI’s human rights policy language.

Associate Dean Baker, at the time, stressed the society needed to include the policy, which prohibits groups from rejecting would-be members based solely on race, gender or sexual orientation. But, he said, the policy “does not prohibit student groups from establishing membership criteria.”

“Asking prospective members to sign the CLS statement of faith would not violate the UI human rights policy,” he said, going so far as to add, “Individuals who fail to observe the CLS statement of faith may be dismissed as members.”

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That letter specifically addresses the issue of homosexuality, which was at the center of the university’s decision in November 2017 to deregister the Business Leaders in Christ student group. The group, in turn, filed a federal lawsuit in January accusing the UI of discrimination.

“Individuals who fail to observe the CLS statement of faith may be dismissed as members,” Baker wrote at the time the Christian Legal Society was trying to become recognized. “Your group may not, however, refuse to accept as a member a homosexual law student who professes to be a Christian and is prepared to sign your organization’s statement of faith and observe the CLS group rules for member behavior.”

The UI also addressed the issue in 1999 when then-Dean Phillip Jones wrote in a memo — made public through court documents — that he found no violations in a faith-based constitution requiring members agree with and sign on to a statement of faith.

In 2008, UI administrators came to the defense of the Christian Legal Society after a student budgeting committee was slow to respond to an application for funding to a national conference.

“As a recognized student organization, CLS’s application for funds to cover conference expenses should be processed on its merits without any consideration of the organization’s viewpoint,” according to then-Dean of Students Tom Rocklin.

In 2009, Rocklin warned about litigation nationally related to constitutional rights afforded student organizations at tax-supported universities.

“It is important that our policies and our practices not discriminate illegally against groups that promote a religious creed,” Rocklin wrote. “Student government leaders who inadvertently infringe on the constitutional rights of religious student organizations are subject to personal liability in court.”

Reinterpreting policy

That caution became premonition when in 2016 the just 2-year-old Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC, told a member he couldn’t became a leader if he acted on his gay identity. That member complained and the UI investigated. The university found BLinC had violated its human rights policy.

After being kicked off campus, BLinC hired a nationally known religious-freedom law firm and sued — arguing, in part, the UI decision was inconsistent with its own practices, noting other UI groups based on Muslim, Sikh and Christian faiths had similar member and leader requirements.

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A judge, who has not yet ruled on the human rights issue, agreed with BLinC that the UI was unevenly enforcing its policy and ordered BLinC retain registration status for now.

In response, the UI over the summer reviewed 500-plus student group constitutions and found 356 were out of compliance.

UI officials told the court they sent emails in April to groups without the full human rights clause in their documents and required they produce updates. In June, according to the UI, the groups received final warnings: Those still non-compliant would lose registration June 15.

Nearly 40 were automatically deregistered, with many others left hanging in limbo.

Among those that lost registration status was InterVarsity — although not its counterparts under the same organizational umbrella: Multiethnic Undergrad Hawkeye InterVarsity and International Neighbors, both of which require leaders to affirm the group’s beliefs.

And, counter to UI assertions, InterVarsity leadership reported receiving first word its registration was in jeopardy June 1 — nor in April.

Producing an updated version June 2 with verbatim policy language, leaders told The Gazette they assumed the issue was resolved.

But on June 12, just days before losing association, a UI staffer warned the constitution remained non-compliant. The sticking point was its leadership restriction, something the local chapter had no power to change on its own.

After being deregistered, InterVarsity joined BLinC by filing a federal lawsuit against the university. Both cases, being litigated by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., are ongoing.

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Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel with Becket, told The Gazette he remains perplexed why the university reinterpreted its human rights policy, which has not changed in substance.

“InterVarsity has been at University of Iowa for 25 years and their leadership requirement has stayed consistent throughout,” Blomberg said. “This is a leadership requirement they have on all of their campuses in all the different places they work. … And that’s been true of them throughout their 75-80 year history.”

Driving that consistency, he said, is the need to retain footing in faith.

“The change hasn’t been on the part of InterVarsity, but rather on the part of the university,” he said. “It’s interpreting its existing language in a way it hadn’t in the past.”

‘Like-minded Students’

Among those InterVarsity chapters continuing to operate without problems are those at ISU and UNI, Iowa’s two other public universities. Both of those groups also have constitutions requiring chapter leaders agree with and act in accordance with their core beliefs — including belief in “the only true God.”

For student organization recognition at ISU, groups must be “open to all students” without regard to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other protected class. But ISU student group policy also “recognizes the interests of students to organize and association with like-minded students.”

“Accordingly, any individual who subscribes to the goals and beliefs of a student organization may participate in and become a member of the organization,” according to the ISU policy.

UNI, while requiring membership be open to all students, also notes student organizations can choose members and leaders based on “commitment to a set of beliefs” and can limit membership and participation to students who “affirm that they support the organization’s goals and agree with its beliefs.”

The UI policy allows registered student organizations to exercise “free choice of members on the basis of their merits as individuals without restriction in accordance with the university policy on human rights.”

Board of Regents spokesman Josh Lehman declined to address the differences between the three universities’ human rights policies and practices.

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ISU spokesman John McCarroll pointed to the school’s policies in responding to The Gazette’s questions about why its response to groups like InterVarsity diverges from the UI’s.

‘Very hard to understand’

UI officials didn’t respond to The Gazette’s requests for interviews on the topic, including on the recent decision to deregister groups based on leadership mandates.

They did, however, respond to InterVarsity’s threat in August to seek a temporary restraining order to allow it to retain UI association until the lawsuit is resolved.

On Aug. 13, Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers sent an email to all student organizations that identify, in some capacity, as “spiritual & religious.” Those groups, she said, “will be considered a registered student organization until the litigation against the University of Iowa involving student organizations is resolved.”

With all of those previously-deregistered faith-based groups back on campus, the total of those that lost association status as part of the summer review process stands at 13, UI officials told The Gazette on Thursday. That total still includes groups organized around culture — like the Malaysian Student Society and the Indonesian Student Organization.

“It’s very hard to understand a real clear policy that’s going on here,” Blomberg said.

Retaining the university association matters to groups. It affords them access to campus facilities, student fairs, email lists — and money. Of $1.9 million in UI student activity fee revenue for the 2018 budget year, $190,000 went toward student organization business, according to documents provided The Gazette. The same was projected for the 2019 budget year.

But Kevin Kummer, a UI campus pastor who has been on staff with InterVarsity for 21 years, said this issue is about more than finances and physical resources. It’s about reputation, for starters, he said.

“International students, in particular, I think when they come, if they’re looking for a group to get involved with and one is not listed as being an official campus group, or if there is word out that one was deregistered, there is a distrust toward it that — they steer away from it,” Kummer said.

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“So both the physical access to being able to meet people, but also the sense of legitimacy that it conveys to incoming students,” he said. “It really makes a difference.”

It’s also about principle, Blomberg said.

“What (the university) sent to InterVarsity Graduate was clear — you can’t ask your leaders to share your faith, and it doesn’t matter how you ask them, you just can’t make that requirement or request,” he said. “And that’s exactly the problem. Because if that’s the standard, then that means religious groups can’t ultimately remain religious.”

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

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