Law & the Courts

A Court Case in Iowa Shows the Reality of Religious Discrimination in America

Campus of the University of Iowa (Wikimedia)
Media’s failure in covering this more than decade-long scandal helps explain why the secular public often seem mystified by Christian concerns with religious liberty.

If you get the lion’s share of your news from America’s prestige media outlets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the principal religious-freedom issue in America is whether a few Christian business owners can discriminate against their gay customers. Whether the controversy is a media-created fiction (think of Indiana’s Memories Pizza — a store that never denied anyone service) or an actual court case, like Masterpiece Cakeshop, the narrative is the same. The battle over “religious liberty” — yes, the scare quotes are often all too real — is the battle over the right of business owners to recreate their own, small-scale version of Jim Crow.

But what if the cases that dominate the headlines (in addition to being fundamentally mischaracterized) actually represent an insignificant fraction of the total religious-liberty cases in the country? What if there is a much larger story — one that contradicts the media narrative and legitimizes conservative Christian concerns that when the Left is dominant, it will systematically and comprehensively discriminate against orthodox Christian individuals and groups?

I’m talking about the Christian experience on campus, where there have been hundreds of cases and controversies involving the most basic rights of free speech, free exercise of religion, and freedom of association. And many of the cases contain the most obvious and blatant evidence of overt discrimination.

Take, for example, a story that should have made headlines last week. Federal district-court judge Stephanie Rose (an Obama appointee) delivered the University of Iowa a humiliating defeat in court, granting a small Christian student group called Business Leaders in Christ a permanent injunction against the enforcement of the university’s so-called Human Rights Policy — a policy that the university had selectively enforced to privilege favored speakers and punish theologically conservative Christians.

The facts of the case are simple — and have been replicated on college campuses across the land. The university “de-recognized” the Christian group because it screens its leaders to make sure that they “agree with and can represent the group’s religious beliefs” — which include a standard statement of faith and the orthodox belief that sexual activity is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. In other words, a traditional Christian group wants to be led by people of traditional Christian faith.

This was intolerable to the University of Iowa. And lest you think it was even-handedly enforcing a neutral nondiscrimination policy, think again. Here’s the court:

The University has approved the constitutions of numerous organizations that explicitly limit access to leadership or membership based on religious views, race, sex, and other characteristics protected by the Human Rights Policy. These groups include Love Works, which requires leaders to sign a “gay-affirming statement of Christian faith”; . . . House of Lorde, which implements membership “interview[s]” to maintain “a space for Black Queer individuals and/or the support thereof”; [and] the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which limits membership to “enrolled Chinese Students and Scholars.” [Internal citations omitted.]

When asked to justify this blatant favoritism, the university claimed that the privileged groups existed “for reasons which support the University’s educational mission.” For example, the university argued that some groups “provide safe spaces for minorities which have historically been the victims of discrimination.” As a result, “the University allows groups to speak about religion, homosexuality, and other protected traits through their leadership criteria,” but it denied the Christian group the same right.

That is textbook viewpoint discrimination, and it’s blatantly unconstitutional.

The only thing unusual about the Iowa case is the university’s hubris. It actually defended its blatant discrimination in court. Most universities will de-recognize the Christian group and essentially dare the group to sue. Sometimes, when a lawyer responds, they’ll compromise. Sometimes, they resist and then settle. Sometimes, they fight in court. The Alliance Defending Freedom (my former employer) reports more than 200 legal interventions on campus, and that’s just one group. Other groups, like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (which represented Business Leaders in Christ), the First Liberty Institute, and the Christian Legal Society have their own considerable case files.

There have been moments when an entire state university system takes action, as when the California State University system ejected 23 different chapters of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship from campus. There have also been moments when prestige universities attempt a virtual “clean sweep” of Christian groups, as when Vanderbilt University compared Christian groups that wanted Christian leadership to “segregationists” and ejected more than a dozen groups from campus.

The media failure in covering this more than decade-long scandal helps explain why the secular public can often seem mystified by Christian concerns with religious liberty. After all, aren’t the baker and florist cases isolated and rare? Why all the hysterical rhetoric? But when you consider that tens of thousands of young Christians on campus have had direct experience with blatant double standards and explicit anti-Christian discrimination — and when you consider that hundreds of thousands more have direct knowledge of that discrimination — then the concern starts to make more sense.

Moreover, secular students observe and learn from administrators’ scorn for the fundamental freedoms of orthodox Christian students. They learn that there is something wrong with Christian expression. They too often emerge from their campus experience believing that opposition to religious liberty advances social justice rather than contradicts American constitutional ideals.

Across the United States, state officials are repeatedly telling American Christians that there is something inherently wrong with their faith. They’re even claiming that it’s out of bounds for Christian groups to seek Christian leadership and often claiming that orthodox Christian beliefs are on a moral par with defenses of slavery or other repugnant forms of bigotry. They engage in rank favoritism and blatant viewpoint discrimination. These actions warp American culture and transform American politics. They deserve far more media attention than they receive.

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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