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Court compels U of Iowa officers to personally pay for oppressing Christian group

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October 3, 2019 (Becket) — A vice president and other officers at the University of Iowa must pay out of their own pockets for discriminating against a religious student group. In InterVarsity v. University of Iowa, a federal court ruled that the University and its officers violated the law when they kicked InterVarsity off campus for asking its leaders to be Christian. A dozen other religious groups — including Sikhs, Muslims, and Latter-day Saints — were also kicked off campus for requiring their leaders to share their faith. But all secular groups and a few religious groups favored by the University got a pass. In a ruling last Friday, the court held that this discrimination was so egregious that the officers involved would be personally accountable for any money InterVarsity lost fighting to stay on campus. The court left open the possibility that the University's president, Bruce Harreld, could also be found liable.

InterVarsity has been at the University for over 25 years. It welcomes all students as members, and only requires the students who lead its ministry to affirm its faith. In the past, the University has honored InterVarsity for its contributions to campus life. But in June 2018, the University claimed that, by requiring leaders to affirm their faith, InterVarsity was violating the University's nondiscrimination policy. The University then limited InterVarsity's access to campus, froze its bank account, shut down its website, and advertised that it was "defunct" for lack of student interest. As a result, InterVarsity suffered its sharpest membership decline in over twenty years. Friday's ruling confirmed that the University's actions violated the Constitution and ordered the University to respect InterVarsity's right to select religious leaders going forward.

"We must have leaders who share our faith," said Greg Jao, Director of External Relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. "No group — religious or secular — could survive with leaders who reject its values. We're grateful the court has stopped the University's religious discrimination, and we look forward to continuing our ministry on campus for years to come."

InterVarsity USA is on 772 campuses nationwide. Its University of Iowa chapter hosts weekly Bible studies and monthly meetings for prayer, worship, and religious discussions on current issues. In upholding the group's right to be on campus, the court noted that, just last January — in the related case of BLinC v. University of Iowa — it already warned the University against enforcing its policy unevenly. The court stated it "would never have expected the University to respond to that order by homing in on religious groups[]" like InterVarsity, while "carving out explicit exemptions for other groups. But here we are." The court did "not know how a reasonable person could have concluded this was acceptable," since it "plainly" doubled down on the exact same conduct the court had already held unlawful. In a hearing last week, the court described the University's conduct as "ludicrous" and "incredibly baffling."

"It's too bad it took twice for the University to learn its lesson," said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. "There was no excuse the first time for squashing students' First Amendment rights. University officials nationwide should now take note that religious discrimination will hit them in the pocketbook."

Published with permission from Becket.

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