Eric Baxter, vice president, and senior counsel for Beckett Law appeared on Tuesday's edition of CBN's Newswatch to discuss the case and the future of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on the University of Iowa campus. Newswatch is seen weeknights on the CBN News Channel.
In a stunning decision, a federal judge has ruled that officials at the University of Iowa violated the law when they kicked InterVarsity Christian Fellowship off their campus and that they are personally responsible for costs incurred by InterVarsity in defending its rights.
InterVarsity had been on the University of Iowa campus for over 25 years. But in 2018, the University expelled the group from the U of I campus for insisting that anyone in leadership must affirm its Christian beliefs. The University claimed that requirement was discriminatory.
Along with InterVaristy, UI kicked other religious groups off campus as well – including Sikhs, Muslims, and Latter-Day Saints – all for requiring the same thing of its leaders, simply that they embrace the groups' core beliefs.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious liberty law group, defended InterVarsity, and in a statement released to the media, said secular groups and "a few religious groups favored by the University" – were excluded from this mass ejection and got to stay on campus.
The Beckett Fund reports in the ruling last Friday, the court held that this discrimination was so egregious that the officers involved – and possibly even the University's president – would be personally accountable for any money InterVarsity lost fighting to stay on campus.
Greg Jao, Director of External Relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, stated "We must have leaders who share our faith.
"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."
The court noted that it had already warned the University of Iowa about discriminating against religious groups in another case – Business Leaders In Christ v. The University of Iowa. As reported by CBN News, B L in C was kicked off campus because the club rejected a gay student for a leadership position in the group. The university said the club discriminated against the student. But the club maintained the student would not agree to the group's statement of faith that views homosexual behavior as sinful.
In February, The Des Moines Register reported the court ruled against the University of Iowa, writing "the University of Iowa can't strip a Christian group of its status as a registered student organization based on its requirement that leaders follow its statement of faith, which includes not having sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman."
According to the newspaper, in that decision, Judge Stephanie M. Rose said the university unevenly applies its policy and still allows other groups to limit access to leadership or membership based on their views.
So when the InterVarsity case came before Judge Rose a short time later, the judge's ruling expressed surprise that UI had done the same thing again in the InterVarsity case. 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."
Describing the University's conduct as "ludicrous" and "incredibly baffling," the court went on to say, it "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.
Christian groups are fighting to keep or get official recognition on campuses all across the country. A more recent one was reported by CBN News earlier this month, when the Duke University student senate refused to give the Christian group, Young Life, official recognition as a campus student group because, like InterVarsity, Young Life requires its leaders to adhere to Christian teaching about sexuality. The senate said that policy was discriminatory. Without that official status, Young Life will have to continue to meet off-campus and can not participate in club fairs held on campus by other groups to recruit new members.
With the InterVarsity v. University of Iowa decision where a federal judge ruled resoundingly in InterVarsity's favor, Young Life and other Christian student groups can take heart. They may have a precedent they can take to court to help them fight for the right to choose their own leaders just like any other group.