DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – Two Christian student groups sued the University of Iowa for religious discrimination Monday after the Iowa City-based university stripped the organizations of their recognition as official student organizations because they require leaders to accept the groups’ beliefs.
The federal lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of Iowa by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, who say the university violated their religious liberty, free speech and free association rights under both the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions.
“The university’s purge of dissenters causes uniquely existential harm to religious groups. A group’s leaders are the embodiment of its identity and mission,” the complaint states. “While the university allows political and other ideological groups to select leaders based on shared identity and mission, the university’s position makes it impossible for religious groups to do so. A religious group denied religious leadership will ultimately cease to be religious.”
The student groups are represented by religious law firm Becket, based in Washington, D.C., with Eric Baxter as lead counsel. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, attorney Matt Dummermuth of Hagenow Gustoff & Dummermuth is local counsel on the suit.
Becket filed a similar lawsuit last December against the University of Iowa on behalf of a different student group, Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC). The group was also delisted by the university when a student filed a formal complaint saying that he had been denied an officer position in the group because he is openly gay.
That case is scheduled for trial next March. In January, a federal judge temporarily restored BLinC’s registration.
The InterVarsity Christian Fellowship groups encourage student members to “take a fresh look at the life and message of Jesus” and to develop as Christian disciples, but they are open to members and participation by students regardless of their religious beliefs. Officers of the organizations, however, must “ascribe to InterVarsity’s faith,” according to the complaint.
That put the groups in violation of the University of Iowa’s human rights policy, which forbids discrimination on campus on the basis of “race, creed, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, disability, genetic information, status as a U.S. veteran, service in the U.S. military, sexual orientation, gender identity, associational preferences, or any other classification that deprives the person of consideration as an individual.”
The university told the InterVarsity groups they had to change their constitutions that limited officerships to Christians and stripped them of recognition as registered student organizations when they did not. As a registered student organization, groups receive certain benefits, including access to university facilities, funding and services.
“Deregistration harms InterVarsity in a number of ways,” the lawsuit states. “In addition to the harm of having its First Amendment rights violated and suffering discriminatory stigma, it also prevents InterVarsity from having equal access to graduate and professional students during student orientation events and student organization fairs, or via communication mediums controlled by the university.”
The groups want an injunction preventing the university from denying them recognition as registered student organization status based on the religious content of their leadership policies.
“If public universities really want to foster an intellectually diverse environment, this isn’t how to do it,” Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement Monday. “Universities should allow students the space to form their own groups that challenge and grow their sincere beliefs. Banning religious groups from having religious leaders just flattens diversity and impoverishes the campus.”
A request for comment from the Iowa attorney general’s office was not immediately returned Monday afternoon.