Qualified immunity won't protect college administrators who discriminate against religion

·4 min read

College officials have been put on notice: targeting religious student groups isn’t just unconstitutional, it’s costly. A federal court of appeals this month agreed with my firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, that University of Iowa officials “turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence” by punishing Christian, Muslim, and Sikh groups for the crime of asking their leaders to agree with their faith.

That blatant violation meant the officials weren’t shielded by “qualified immunity,” a rule that protects government officials from personal liability when making close judgment calls about constitutional rights. The ruling was a warning shot to the wallets of university administrators across the country and for the same reason a big win for students of all faith groups nationwide.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was one of the religious student groups that was kicked out by University of Iowa administrators. InterVarsity had been an award-winning member of the university community for over 25 years. During that time, the group led important community service projects, held interfaith campus dialogues, and invited all students to join its regular Bible studies and worship.

University targets religious group

In fact, the only role in the group that wasn’t open to everyone was leadership, where InterVarsity merely asked that the individuals who led its prayer, Bible study, and worship agreed with the fundamentals of InterVarsity’s Christian faith. Personnel is policy, and so–like virtually all other clubs on campus–InterVarsity simply wanted its leaders to support its mission. No one ever complained about that common-sense requirement.

Until summer 2018, that is, when the university sent InterVarsity notice that the group’s leadership requirement was in violation of university policy.

What policy? The one prohibiting, of all things, religious discrimination. The school used a policy meant to protect religious groups to exclude them instead. And 25 years of fruitful partnership disappeared overnight.

University of Iowa in Iowa City in 2015.
University of Iowa in Iowa City in 2015.

Soon after, numerous other religious student groups were also shown the door, including the Imam Mahdi Organization, the Sikh Awareness Club, and the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship.

And the other religious groups were placed on a university “watch list” of groups facing derecognition. Of the university’s 579 registered student groups, only religious groups were put in that probationary category.

“The university’s fervor dissipated, however, once they finished with the religious [groups],” the court's July 16 ruling laconically, and correctly, notes. The puritanical zeal for nondiscrimination somehow left much bigger “discriminators” on campus unmolested. Far from getting the InterVarsity treatment, for instance, fraternities and sororities were given a special dispensation to limit leadership and membership based on sex. Political and ideological groups could still set political and ideological litmus tests for their leaders.

And, despite the ultra-strict policy interpretation imposed on religious groups, the university allowed its own scholarship, mentoring, and student-activity programs to discriminate on race, sex, and other protected categories.

Uddin and Slugh: Why Supreme Court's ruling in Fulton case is critical win for religious minorities

The upshot of all this was that secular groups got a pass while religious groups got the shaft. For secular groups, the university could comprehend that there are legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons why a sorority might not want to be led by a frat bro. But university officials couldn’t conceive of any reason a Jewish group wouldn’t want its Yom Kippur observances – the holiest of the year – to be led by a Protestant.

Not held to the same standard

University officials tried to excuse their actions by pointing to a 2010 Supreme Court case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. But while commentators have long decried that controversial 5-4 ruling for muddying the waters on student rights, one thing is certain: It never gave administrators a blank check to discriminate against religious groups. Instead, as the appeals court ruled this month, Martinez reaffirmed decades of cases requiring that religious groups be treated at least as well as their secular counterparts.

Rightly so. The university’s attack on religious leadership is really just an attack on religious groups. How is a religious group supposed to survive and thrive without religious leadership? The simple answer is that they can’t. And that’s a loss not just for religious groups, but for the diversity of thought that a public university is supposed to foster.

Uddin and Lewis: Religious liberty vs. LGBTQ rights: Supreme Court will soon rule in case affecting both

University of Iowa officials aren’t the only ones to target religious groups. To take a recent example, earlier this spring, another federal court held officials at Michigan university accountable for targeting InterVarsity for asking its leaders to be Christians. And Becket has handled dozens of less extreme situations nationwide where both collegiate and high-school officials have harassed religious student groups over their religious leadership policies, in states as far-flung as California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Washington.

But this month's unanimous appellate ruling shows that continued harassment won’t go unnoticed. Nor will it be cheap.

Daniel Blomberg (@DBlombergSC) is senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. He argued InterVarsity’s case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

This column is part of a series by the USA TODAY Opinion team examining the issue of qualified immunity. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together. The opinions offered are those of the USA TODAY Editorial Board. Stand Together does not provide editorial input.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Religious groups should be able to choose their own religious leaders

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting