Can universities kick out religious groups with impunity? Court weighs officials’ personal responsibility for religious discrimination
Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 email@example.com
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit today heard arguments over whether university officials can be held personally accountable for intentional religious discrimination on campus. Officials from the University of Iowa appealed after a district court found them personally liable for kicking out InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and other Sikh, Muslim, and Christian groups—all supposedly for violating the University’s nondiscrimination policy by asking their leaders to agree with their respective faiths. However, other groups were not held to the same standard. Greek groups and sports teams were allowed to select leaders and members based on sex, despite the University’s policy against sex discrimination. And dozens of groups were allowed to screen leaders for shared beliefs on issues like gender, race, and sexual orientation, even though those topics are also covered by the nondiscrimination policy. Only disfavored religious groups were punished for screening their leaders for mission alignment. Today, InterVarsity asked the Eighth Circuit to affirm a lower court ruling that school officials should be personally responsible for this religious discrimination.
“InterVarsity serves the University of Iowa, its students and faculty, and the local community,” said Greg Jao, Director of External Relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. “The policy should have been used to protect, rather than penalize, religious groups that seek to retain their religious identity on campus.”
InterVarsity was a part of the campus community at the University of Iowa for over 25 years, during which time it was awarded and recognized by the University for exemplary service to students. But in 2018, InterVarsity received a notice from the school threatening deregistration. The school claimed that InterVarsity’s longstanding requirement that its leaders be Christians violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy. The University gave InterVarsity two weeks to change its religious leadership requirement, refused to allow InterVarsity to even “strongly encourage” its leaders to agree with its faith, and then kicked it off campus. The University also deregistered several other religious groups, including Sikh, Muslim, and other Christian organizations, for requiring their leaders to agree with their religious missions. But secular groups—including Greek groups that counted almost 20% of campus among their members—were allowed to form around shared characteristics and beliefs.
“University officials who target individuals or groups based on religion must be held accountable for their actions,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “No organization can live out its mission if its leaders don’t share its beliefs. Allowing all groups except religious groups to ensure that leaders are mission aligned is blatant religious discrimination.”
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