Michael Swartz / February 15, 2019

Religious Liberty Gets a Small Boost From a Jurist

The University of Iowa was thwarted, albeit narrowly, in its attempt to persecute Christians.

In a narrow but still surprising ruling, the University of Iowa was thwarted in its covert effort to rid the campus of a number of religiously based, mostly Christian groups. U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose ruled last week that the school was not enforcing its stated policy in a fair manner.

The university had threatened to withhold official recognition and access to its facilities from the Business Leaders in Christ student group (and more than 30 similar groups), which hadn’t strictly adhered to the University’s human-rights policy. Business Leaders in Christ was in the spotlight because a homosexual student who sought a leadership position within the organization was denied because he disagreed with the group’s stated belief that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife in the lifelong covenant of marriage.” The student countered by claiming that Business Leaders in Christ denied him the position because he was “openly gay.”

In 2017, after the student’s complaint had been investigated by the University, the group’s registration was suspended once efforts to bring it into compliance were deemed unsatisfactory by university administration. That administrative decision compelled Business Leaders in Christ to turn to the courts for relief, claiming the school’s human-rights policy was being selectively enforced.

Needless to say, those who stand for religious liberty weren’t shocked by these allegations. “This blatant government animus against religious groups on taxpayer-funded college campuses is a direct violation of students’ First Amendment rights and demonstrates significant disdain for religious people, who have every right to gather and express their faith on a public campus,” wrote Nicole Russell for The Federalist.

A similar reaction came from National Review’s David French, who called the university’s action “textbook viewpoint discrimination, and it’s blatantly unconstitutional.” Furthermore, added French, the Business Leaders in Christ case was a story that should have gotten far more media coverage.

This case is the latest fallout from a 2010 Supreme Court case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, in which the Court held 5-4 that religious groups desiring official campus recognition were not free to exclude those who didn’t agree with their teachings. The deciding vote was cast by since-retired “swing” Justice Anthony Kennedy, who joined the four leftist members of the Court.

While the Business Leaders in Christ case was somewhat different because the student, who was already a member, was denied a leadership position based on his beliefs, it’s the small reversal — by a Barack Obama appointee, no less — of what’s become a trend within academia: taking a hard line against Christian groups who adhere to Biblical teaching on marriage. Other recent examples include Vanderbilt University, Bowdoin College, and the University of California system. Yet, as French argued in the Vanderbilt case, Greek fraternities and sororities discriminate against those who seek admission to their groups for the most picayune reasons, but administrators would “never dare mess with a sorority/fraternity system that has existed for decades, maintains a vibrant alumni network, and works to draw new students to campus.”

Christians should be cautioned, however, that Judge Rose’s opinion is only based on the University of Iowa’s selective and unequal enforcement of the human-rights policy. “There is no fault to be found with the policy itself,” Rose wrote. “But the constitution does not tolerate the way defendants chose to enforce the human rights policy. Particularly when free speech is involved, the uneven application of any policy risks the most exacting standard of judicial scrutiny, which defendants have failed to withstand.”

College should be a place where differing viewpoints are encountered and respectfully debated in order to broaden one’s academic horizons. But just as colleges are selective in their admissions policies, shouldn’t on-campus groups be allowed to be selective for their needs, too? Judge Rose only (begrudgingly) gave Christians half a loaf in this ruling; the real work will come if and when a similar case calling the prevailing “all-comers” policy into question makes it back to the Supreme Court.

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