InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. University of Iowa
A faith community for students, focused on fellowship and service
For 25 years, the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship student group has been part of campus life at the University of Iowa, a campus that features over 500 student groups. As a Christian group, InterVarsity fulfills its mission by providing a community where students can grow in their faith while pursuing their academic education. The student group hosts weekly Bible studies, monthly meetings that include prayer and worship, and discussions on important religious and social issues on campus. It also serves the local, state, and global communities by hosting and participating in community service initiatives, including Oxfam and the C.R.O.P. Hunger Walk to combat global poverty. Intervarsity has been the top fundraiser for the C.R.O.P. Walk six times in the last decade. The University of Iowa has previously recognized the student group for its outstanding service to the student body.
InterVarsity encourages and welcomes all students to be members, and as a Christian group, it reasonably asks that group leaders share its Christian faith. In this respect, InterVarsity is no different from the many other student groups on campus that ask their leaders to adhere to certain requirements. For instance, fraternities have only male leaders and members; female sports clubs have only female leaders and members; and political and ideological groups can require their leaders to agree with their mission.
Banned from campus
On June 1, 2018, following the end of the school year, the University of Iowa sent a notice to InterVarsity, threatening the student group with deregistration. Why? For the first time in 25 years, the University deemed the Christian group’s reasonable requirement that its leaders share its faith to be “noncompliant” with university non-discrimination policies. The University gave InterVarsity two weeks to change its constitution.
No group, especially a religious group, can expect its mission to survive without leaders who share and further its mission—religious or not. When InterVarsity explained that the group’s very existence depended on leaders who share its faith mission, the University doubled down, insisting that the student group could not even “encourage” leaders to believe in and live by its religious mission. Shortly after, University officials deregistered the student group, effectively eliminating it from campus.
A sweeping, discriminatory assault on student rights
In July 2018, the University of Iowa officially deregistered InterVarsity, along with 38 other student groups —including the Sikh Awareness Club, the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, the Imam Mahdi Organization, Geneva Campus Ministry, and the Latter-day Saint Student Association. Yet, despite the University’s insistence that it must scrub the campus of groups with “non-compliant” leadership requirements, sports clubs, fraternities and sororities, and political and ideological groups can require their leaders (and members) to share their mission or their unique identity. The University’s inconsistency is more than puzzling—it is discriminatory.
On August 6, 2018, Becket, on behalf of InterVarsity student group, sued the University of Iowa in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, defending InterVarsity’s right to require its leaders to believe in and live its religious mission. The University of Iowa is a public university and an extension of the government. It has no right to interfere with the way religious groups, including student groups, choose the leaders who represent and further their faith teachings.
As result of the lawsuit, the University agreed to temporarily reinstate InterVarsity, as well as all other religious groups that had been deregistered, including Sikh, Muslim, and other Christian organizations. But the reinstatement only lasted while litigation against the University was ongoing, and the University continued to argue that it had authority to kick out religious groups like InterVarsity.
On September 30, 2019, a federal district court found that the University had violated the First Amendment’s protections for free speech, free association, and free exercise of religion. The court also ruled that the individual University officials who discriminated against InterVarsity had violated clearly established law, and so were personally liable for their actions. The University appealed to the Eighth Circuit. On July 16, 2021, the appellate court unanimously upheld the lower court ruling and said that “[w]hat the University did here was clearly unconstitutional” and “turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence.”
Importance to religious liberty:
- Education: There is a nation-wide trend of curbing free speech—especially religious speech—on college campuses. But students do not forfeit their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religious exercise, and freedom of association when studying at a public university.
- Public square: Religion is a natural part of human culture and should not be scrubbed from the public square. This includes public university campuses, which are reflections of the students who attend them, including students with religious beliefs.
- Religious communities: Becket’s 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor guarantees the right of religious groups to select their own leaders without government interference or entanglement.