University Officials Held 'Personally Liable' for Discriminating Against Christians

mosaic of the University of Iowa

On Friday, a federal court ruled that officials at the University of Iowa must pay out of their own pockets for discriminating against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship by kicking them off campus, along with other religious student groups. The university deregistered the religious groups after an openly gay man claimed he was unjustly denied a leadership position in another Christian organization that required leaders to follow traditional Christian sexual morality. This morality may be unpopular, but organizations should have the freedom of association to limit their leadership to those who follow their precepts.

"We must have leaders who share our faith," Greg Jao, director of external relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, said in a statement. "No group—religious or secular—could survive with leaders who reject its values. We’re grateful the court has stopped the University’s religious discrimination, and we look forward to continuing our ministry on campus for years to come."

In the ruling, Judge Stephanie M. Rose of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, not only found that the university and its officials violated InterVarsity's First Amendment rights to free speech, free association, and the free exercise of religion but she also held university officials personally liable. The officials must pay damages to InterVarsity from their own personal accounts. In handing down the ruling, Rose called the university's actions "ludicrous" and "incredibly baffling."

The university acted against InterVarsity and other religious groups after it deregistered the student group Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) for its policy of restricting leadership to those who believed in Christian teaching and adhered to Christian sexual morality. BLinC sued the university, claiming the school could not treat BLinC differently from other, non-religious groups.

A judge ordered the school to reregister BLinC, but the school responded by deregistering 37 other organizations, including the Imam Mahdi Organization, the Japanese Students and Scholars Club, the Latter-day Saint Student Association, the Sikh Awareness Club, and Young Americans for Liberty.

In February, Rose ruled in favor of BLinC, granting a nominal $1 in damages. The damages will be a great deal larger in the InterVarsity case.

"It’s rare for a federal judge to call out a public university for ‘ludicrous’ and ‘incredibly baffling’ violations of the First Amendment," Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket, who represented InterVarsity and BLinC, told Fox News. "But it was necessary here. The court already told the University of Iowa to stop picking on one Christian student group. The University responded by doubling down and kicking out Christian, Muslim and Sikh groups. That was obviously wrong. And it’s even more clearly wrong once you consider, as the court did, that it was also unfair."

This ruling upholding InterVarsity's religious freedom and freedom of association follows the historic ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018), in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado commission had engaged in unlawful religious discrimination against a Christian baker who refused to craft a custom cake for a same-sex wedding. Government officials had compared the baker's beliefs to the Nazis.

Also last week, a district court judge in Michigan granted a preliminary injunction protecting a Catholic adoption agency from discriminatory state action. That agency had refused to certify same-sex couples and single people for adoption.

The LGBT movement has become overzealous in efforts to prevent discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. These people deserve equal rights, but they do not have the right to silence dissenters or to force conservative religious believers to violate their consciences.

Conservative Christian organizations still have the right to restrict leadership to people who believe their doctrines and follow their moral codes.

The well-documented animus against conservative Christians referred to as Christianophobia helps explain the likely motivations behind these officials at the University of Iowa. Rather than merely accepting that BLinC had the right to choose its own members, the officials revoked the standing of dozens of other groups. Now it seems the chickens will be coming home to roost.

Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.