InterVarsity’s right to choose student leaders upheld
Appeals court finds university discriminated against campus ministry
A federal appeals court on Friday slammed the University of Iowa for punishing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because it limits leadership to Christians. The court said the school violated the organization’s free speech rights.
“We are hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination,” Circuit Judge Jonathan Kobes concluded in a unanimous opinion for the three-judge panel. Kobes, a Trump appointee, noted that the school exempted some groups—like fraternities, sororities, and the gay-affirming LoveWorks—from the nondiscrimination policy, but not InterVarsity and other religious groups.
InterVarsity welcomes all students to attend and participate in activities, but limits leadership to those who subscribe to the evangelical group’s statement of faith. When the university deregistered the chapter in 2018, the group lost access to student activity funds, facilities, and avenues of communication. Kobes found deregistration severely impacted the ministry’s ability to function: The chapter struggled to recruit members and organize activities and spent money and other resources fighting the move.
Earlier in 2018, a district court had already ruled against the University of Iowa over a similar issue: It removed official status from Business Leaders in Christ for requiring leaders to affirm a Biblical statement of faith, which included traditional beliefs on gender and sexuality. Despite that ruling, university administrators doubled down by deregistering 38 student groups, including InterVarsity, which had operated on the campus for 25 years. Kobes affirmed the ruling in favor of the business student group in March.
Kobes castigated university officials for targeting religious groups with harsher treatment, finding their conduct was so clearly wrong that they could be held personally liable. “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,” the judge concluded. “Either way, qualified immunity provides no safe haven.”
InterVarsity previously prevailed against similar nondiscrimination policies at Michigan’s Wayne State University. In April, a federal district court ruled school officials unconstitutionally discriminated against the student ministry when it kicked it off campus in 2017.