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University of Iowa Deregisters 38 Student Groups Amid Battle Over Faith Requirements for Leadership

mosaic of the University of Iowa

Late last month, the University of Iowa revoked the registrations for 38 student groups amid a controversy that gets at the heart of the First Amendment freedom of association. The university decided that student groups could not have faith or ideology requirements for their leaders, even if the group's entire purpose involves promoting that faith or ideology.

"According to the university, a Baptist, Muslim, or Sikh club is committing religious discrimination if it wants to have a leader who is Baptist, Muslim, or Sikh," Katie Glenn, policy council at the 1st Amendment Partnership (1AP), told PJ Media. "This policy defies common sense and dilutes campus ministries."

The policy is far worse than just that, however. It arguably violates the plain text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. According to that amendment, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging ... the right of the people peaceably to assemble."

"The ability of student groups to choose their members and leaders is foundational to forming groups, and freedom of association has consistently been upheld by the Supreme Court," Glenn said.

How did the university come to this? Last year, the university kicked Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), a Christian student group that required leadership to embrace Christian religious beliefs, including the idea that marriage is between one man and one woman. BLinC sued the university, claiming that the school cannot treat BLinC differently from other, non-religious groups.

As if to illustrate just how monumental the right of free association is, the university deregistered 37 other groups, including the German Club, the Imam Mahdi Organization, the Japanese Students and Scholars Club, the Latter-day Saint Student Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Sikh Awareness Club, Wall-Breakers, and Young Americans for Liberty.

Should the university be able to insist that the Muslim organization promote non-Muslim leaders? Can the school force the Mormon organization to accept non-Mormon leaders? Can the University of Iowa force a white nationalist leader on the NAACP? Or a socialist leader on the libertarian Young Americans for Liberty?

This policy represents a fundamental violation of free association. If an organization cannot insist that its leaders abide by the group's central organizing principle, why even have an organization at all?

This isn't just the University of Iowa, either. Across the country, faith-based student groups have been kicked off campus. Legislators have passed laws in 10 states affirming the right of student groups to select their own leaders. The Iowa Senate passed such a bill earlier this year.

1AP called on the Iowa legislature to pass laws protecting students' free association rights, and to present such a law to the governor next spring.