States Urge Court to Allow Religious Student Clubs to Select Leaders Who Share Their Beliefs

March 24, 2020 Updated: March 24, 2020

Fifteen states, led by their attorneys general, are voicing support for a Christian club at the University of Iowa (UIowa) that was denied funding because it wants to only have Christian students as leaders.

At the center of the issue is InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a registered student organization at UIowa. In 2018, InterVarsity was was told by UIowa that its requirement that leaders must share the Christian faith went against the university’s anti-discrimination policy. As a result, InterVarsity was de-registered, meaning that it would no longer receive funds from the university’s mandatory fees paid by all students, or have a reserved meeting place on campus. Meanwhile, other secular student groups requiring members to subscribe to their respective missions maintained their status during the same school year.

InterVarsity filed a First Amendment lawsuit against UIowa, alleging the public university discriminated the club based on religious beliefs. In September 2019, a district judge ruled (pdf) in favor of the Christian club, saying that UIowa administrators should either revise the policy or personally repay for damages they’ve done by violating the group’s constitutional rights. The decision was appealed.

In a joint brief (pdf) led by Nebraska Attorney General Douglas J. Peterson, 15 state attorneys general argued that the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should uphold the lower court ruling. The supporting states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah in addition to Nebraska.

The 15 states argued in the brief that the UIowa not only failed to cite any federal civil rights laws that forbid public universities from allowing religious student groups to select leaders who share their beliefs, but also tried to avoid the key issue of selectively enforcing policies.

“Although written school policies forbid student groups from discriminating based on religion, sex, creed, or political views, the defendants have allowed many groups to discriminate on those grounds,” the states argued, noting that UIowa has approved the LGBT-friendly Christian group Love Works, even though it requires leaders must agree with the group’s view on sexuality. “This alone is enough to establish a constitutional violation.”

“If these officials can target religious groups like InterVarsity for disfavored treatment, nothing prevents a different university from similarly singling out an LGBT organization, environmental group, gun-rights association, or countless others,” the states warned the 8th Circuit. “The rights of all groups on campus—no matter their views or beliefs—rise and fall together.”

The 8th Circuit ruled in 2017 against Iowa State University in a case involving a pro-cannabis student club, whose trademark licensing requests were denied because the design featured marijuana leaf. The Court said the university violated the group’s First Amendment rights because the denial was motivated by viewpoint discrimination.