Religious Groups Led by Co-Religionists — It Shouldn’t Be Controversial

The University of Iowa says that InterVarsity discriminates. Observant Jews should defend the Christian student group.

Religious groups must be allowed to choose their leaders without government interference. America’s founders recognized the harms caused by the British government’s meddling in religious leadership. They adopted the First Amendment in part to prevent such usurpations. Unfortunately, some governmental entities have lost sight of the founders’ wisdom. Driven by an egalitarian desire to eliminate alleged discrimination, the University of Iowa is meddling in the internal leadership decisions of religious groups. Members of all faiths must come together to rebuff this threat to religious liberty.

The InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA is a campus ministry that operates on American college campuses. Its mission, which is expressly religious, includes helping “graduate and professional students and faculty learn more about Christ, grow spiritually, and live faithfully.” The organization’s activities include prayer, worship, and Bible study and are unambiguously religious. InterVarsity also participates in charitable drives motivated by their faith. People of all faiths and no faith can join it and participate in its events. Ministry leaders, however, must affirm that they share and model the group’s Christian faith.

The University of Iowa claims that its human-rights policy, which bars discrimination on the basis of religion, prohibits the ministry from limiting its leadership to practicing Christians. The university therefore revoked InterVarsity’s status as a student group and deregistered Muslim, Sikh, and Mormon groups for similar reasons.

InterVarsity attempted to compromise. It offered to replace the requirement that its leaders be practicing Christians with language indicating that it “strongly encouraged” leaders to share its faith. The school responded that even that language would violate the human-rights policy. The ministry was not allowed to indicate that it had any preference for leaders or members who shared its faith. That is not a fine-tuned requirement aimed at rooting out hidden discrimination; it is a blunt instrument that the university is wielding to bring the ministry to heel.

Denying the ministry the status of a student organization interferes with the ministry’s ability to raise funds, hold events, and even advertise on campus. The state is forcing the ministry to choose between the integrity of its faith and its ability to function efficiently.

Jews should stand in solidarity with Christians in reaffirming the foundational American principle that the government has no role in dictating who may serve as a religious leader. Jewish history is replete with examples of Jews pressured to abandon Judaism and conform to the religion or ideology of groups that were persecuting them. Jews have suffered from religiously motivated persecution — during the Crusades and the Inquisition, for example — as well as from attempts by irreligious groups such as the Soviets and the Jacobins to secularize them. America has, for the most part, resisted such tendencies, allowing Jews to flourish and maintain their distinctiveness. If left unchecked, the action by the University of Iowa would establish a dangerous precedent.

The constitutionally protected right of religious minorities to select their own leaders is a buffer that protects them from meddling by their neighbors and the government. Their neighbors cannot join a religious organization en masse and vote for leaders who do not share its religious purpose. The government cannot force it to select leaders more in line with the zeitgeist. Weakening that barrier would leave the fate of religious minorities to the whim of people who do not share their views. Jews and members of other minority religions have an interest in speaking out against the university’s policy.

In addition to creating the potential for abuse, the university’s policy is counterproductive. For a religious group to restrict leadership positions to individuals who share its faith is not a human-rights abuse. It evinces a practical desire to choose leaders best suited to advance the group’s religious mission. When a religious Jewish organization appoints observant Jewish leaders, it is not committing a hate crime.

Examining why observant Jews are best suited to lead religious Jewish organizations can help us better understand why the university’s policy is a mistake. To appreciate Judaism fully, one must experience it firsthand. One could read a book about Sabbath observance, repenting on the holiday of Yom Kippur, or reenacting the Jewish national origin story on Passover, but that would pale in comparison with personal participation in those practices. Living them out helps a person internalize them, as a member of the community with a shared sense of history, obligation, and belonging.

The Passover service, or seder, emphasizes that every participant should see himself as if he were personally taken out of Egypt. Services on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, include mourning rituals to commemorate the destruction of the Jewish temples and the exile from Israel. Jews fast and spend the day acting as if a close family member had recently died. There is simply no substitute for having experienced these activities “on the inside” as a member of the community.

The university discounts the benefits of this unique perspective when it prohibits religious organizations from preferring leaders who share their faith. It is entirely sensible for a religious Jewish organization to expect that its leaders will share a particular set of communal experiences. Ironically, in their quest for egalitarian leveling, the university has lost sight of the value of diverse experiences and backgrounds.

The university’s policy would create pragmatic challenges as well for religious Jewish organizations. A Jewish organization has reason to prefer leaders who are observant and have shown that they have the knowledge and dedication to help the group comply with laws such as those related to the Sabbath and keeping kosher, which are more complicated and demanding than many people realize. In its zeal to root out discrimination, the university ignores those practical considerations and makes it more difficult for religious organizations to act religiously.

Kosher food preparation requires an extensive knowledge of Jewish law and a willingness to adhere to it strictly despite the difficulties that entails. Kosher laws apply not only to the food that is served at an event; they govern every aspect of the food’s preparation. For example, many religious Jews go through a rigorous process of washing vegetables and checking to make sure that they do not contain bugs, because bugs are not kosher. Many religious Jews would not eat vegetables unless they were certain that the processes had been strictly followed.

Observant Jews often experience disappointment when well-meaning friends and colleagues attempt and fail to prepare kosher food for a dinner or holiday party. Even a seemingly inconsequential oversight or mistake can render food not-kosher. There are even a number of kosher certifications that most Orthodox Jews would not consider reliable. The university’s position would multiply such problems for students. Observant Jews who are familiar with keeping Kosher are in the best position to avoid such mistakes and to provide food that other religious Jews will be willing to eat. At best, the university’s policy would make religious organizations less effective at fulfilling their missions.

Combating discrimination is noble, but the University of Iowa has taken its pursuit of that cause to an absurd degree. When a Christian group sued the university, claiming, in part, that other groups were allowed to violate the human-rights policy, the school responded by deregistering 38 groups that limit their membership or leaders to those who meet cultural or ideological qualifications. To judge from the list of deregistered groups, the school simply could not abide a Chinese dance society whose members were Chinese dancers, a German club made up of German students, or a Malaysian student society populated by Malaysians. The fact that this policy has descended into farce makes it no less dangerous to religious groups.

The founders had it right. Governmental entities must not dictate who may serve as a religious leader. Such interference threatens the missions of those groups and, in fact, their existence. There is nothing discriminatory about religious groups wanting their coreligionists to serve as leaders. It is time for the university to admit that it was overzealous and took things too far. The school can serve as an example of integrity to its students by admitting that it made a mistake and restoring the deregulated groups.


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