Boyd Law Building, University of Iowa / Tony Webster on flickr

With a singularly harsh language, on July 16 the US Court of Appeal for the 8th Circuit chastised the University of Iowa for a policy that had led to deregister campus organizations opposing same-sex relationships.

The case had a prehistory in 2017, when a student filed a complaint against another Christian organization, Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), which had denied a leadership position to him because he was gay and refused to subscribe to the group’s doctrine that same-sex relationships are against the Bible.

As an answer to the complaint, the University deregistered BLinC, finding it had violated the college’s anti-discrimination policies. BLinC sued the University, and got a preliminary injunction in its favor, but in the meantime the University had established a committee that would check whether other religious organizations also had similar rules.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which had operated in the University for 25 years with no complaints, was one that did. Everybody can join InterVarsity, but to become a leader, one has to subscribe to the group’s statement of faith, which does specify that same-sex relationships are against the Bible and InterVarsity leaders should refrain from them. InterVarsity refused to change this clause, was deregistered, and sued.

Pending the court case with InterVarsity, and after it lost with BLinC, the University canceled all its deregistration decisions. However, InterVarsity objected that it had lost members, spent money for the litigation, and found that students were afraid to join fearing University retaliation, and continued the case.

Both the District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeal found in favor of InterVarsity. The 8th Circuit judges concluded that the anti-discrimination policy of the University in fact led to discrimination. It mentioned the example of the gay student who was denied a leadership position in BLinC. He started a new organization called LoveWorks, whose charter stipulates that only those subscribing to a “gay-affirming” interpretation of Christianity can join. This charter was reviewed and approved by the University.

“We are hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination,” the judges said.

“What the University did here was clearly unconstitutional,” the appeals court found. “It targeted religious groups for differential treatment under the Human Rights Policy — while carving out exemptions and ignoring other violative groups with missions they presumably supported. The University and individual defendants turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence or they proceeded full speed ahead knowing they were violating the law. Either way, qualified immunity provides no safe haven.”

Noting that fraternities and sororities were also exempted from the review, the appeal court found that the University of Iowa in fact, under the pretext of anti-discrimination, discriminated against groups whose beliefs the University did not approve of, which is constitutionally forbidden and, in the case of religious groups, violates religious liberty.

“The University’s choice to selectively apply the Human Rights Policy against InterVarsity suggests a preference for certain viewpoints—like those of LoveWorks—over InterVarsity’s. The University focused its ‘clean up’ on specific religious groups and then selectively applied the Human Rights Policy against them. Other groups were simply glossed over or ignored,” the judges said.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new...