In Becket’s unanimous win today in InterVarsity v. University of Iowa, the federal court for the Eighth Circuit told University officials it was “hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination” than their discrimination against religious student groups, marking the third time religious groups successfully prevailed against discriminatory university administrators in recent months.
The victory today and similar wins in InterVarsity v. Wayne State and BLinC v. University of Iowa make clear that universities must not discriminate against religious student clubs—and the Court warned that university officials who “make calculated choices about enacting or enforcing [such] unconstitutional policies” should be on notice that they are not entitled to qualified immunity and will be held personally accountable for their actions.
“Schools are supposed to be a place of free inquiry and open thought, but the school officials here punished opinions they didn’t like and promoted ones they did—all while using taxpayer dollars to do it,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “The good news is that they’ve been held accountable, and school officials nationwide are on notice. We are optimistic that in the future, colleges will pursue policies of accommodation, not discrimination, when it comes to religious exercise on campus.”
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In 2018, the University of Iowa deregistered InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship and numerous other religious groups—including Muslim and Sikh groups—because of their common-sense requirement that their leaders agree with their religious beliefs. As in the Wayne State and BLinC cases, the University justified its targeting of religious clubs by accusing the clubs of “discrimination” for wanting their leadership to share their values—even while the schools permitted other organizations (such as sororities, fraternities, and political or activist groups) to consider criteria such as a student’s sex, race, or ideology in the selection of club leadership and membership.
Today’s victory will bring all campus religious student groups lasting protection from religious discrimination by officials at public universities.
The Court encapsulated the situation—and the unconstitutionality—neatly:
What the University did here was clearly unconstitutional. It targeted religious groups for differential treatment under the Human Rights Policy—while carving out exemptions and ignoring other violative groups with missions [the University] presumably supported. The University and individual defendants turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence or they proceeded full speed ahead knowing they were violating the law.
Religious student clubs like InterVarsity provide a valuable place for students to meet, pray, study, and worship. They also help students serve the community, mentoring at-risk youth, raising funds to combat global poverty and cleaning up local neighborhoods. Religious student groups provide a way for students to take time from their studies to focus on their faith and on helping others. And religious groups rely on their student leaders to keep that focus strong.
“Religious groups should be able to have religious leaders. Government officials don’t get to tell Christians, Muslims, or Sikhs who will lead their prayers or their worship,” said Blomberg. “That’s not just bedrock constitutional law, it’s also common sense. And now the University of Iowa knows it.”