Court: University officials 'personally' liable for rights violations

University officials who shut down a Christian student club because members refused to follow a “non-discrimination” policy requiring them to allow atheists to lead Bible studies now can be “personally” liable for damages to the club.

The decision comes from a federal judge in the case brought by the InterVarsity Club at the University of Iowa.

A court already ruled that the university and its officials “violated the law when they kicked InterVarsity off campus for asking its leaders to be Christian,” according to the non-profit legal group Becket.

Now, a vice president and other officers at the university “must pay out of their own pockets for discriminating against a religious student group,” the organization said Monday.

InterVarsity protested the policy because it requires its leaders be Christian. The group was joined by a dozen of religious groups – including Sikhs, Muslims and Latter-day Saints – who also were kicked off campus.

“But all secular groups and a few religious groups favored by the university got a pass,” Becket said. Now a new ruling from U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose has held “that this discrimination was so egregious that the officers involved would be personally accountable for any money InterVarsity lost fighting to stay on campus. The court left open the possibility that the university’s president, Bruce Harreld, could also be found liable.”

Officials named were Melissa Shivers, vice president of student life; William Nelson, associate dean of student organizations; and Andrew Kutcher, coordinator for student organization development.

The court said the “most pointed evidence of the involvement of Shivers, Nelson, and Kutcher comes from Shivers’s deposition testimony, wherein she specifically names herself, Nelson, and Kutcher as the three ‘primary folks’ involved in the decision to deregister InterVarsity.”

The court said the man was more an attack on the Christian group than any attempt to enforce “nondiscrimination.”

“The evidence shows the university has not identified any actual harm to its interests caused by InterVarsity’s religious leadership requirements,” the judge said. “Shivers testified in her deposition that the university did not discuss what harms would be caused … Kutcher testified that the harm caused by InterVarsity’s leadership requirements was that someone might be denied a leadership position in the group because he or she did not share its religious beliefs. But that is not a harm so much as it merely restates InterVarsity’s leadership requirements. Even if this was a distinct harm, Kutcher did not know how to quantify it and was not aware of any discussions I his office about how to do so.”

The court said the university was using “theoretical harms” to attack the Christian group.

The judge also called out the university falsely claiming that all it asks “is that students are not excluded from any group on the basis of protected characteristic[s].”

“Of course, this is not true,” the judge wrote, because of other student groups that were not attacked after restricting leadership.

Becket explained the background: “InterVarsity has been at the university for over 25 years. It welcomes all students as members, and only requires the students who lead its ministry to affirm its faith. In the past, the university has honored InterVarsity for its contributions to campus life. But in June 2018, the university claimed that, by requiring leaders to affirm their faith, InterVarsity was violating the university’s nondiscrimination policy. The university then limited InterVarsity’s access to campus, froze its bank account, shut down its website, and advertised that it was ‘defunct’ for lack of student interest. As a result, InterVarsity suffered its sharpest membership decline in over twenty years.”

Its actions, the court said, “violated the Constitution.”

“We must have leaders who share our faith,” said Greg Jao, director of external relations at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. “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.”

Becket Senior Counsel Daniel Blomberg said school officials need to know religious discrimination “will hit them in the pocketbook.”

Becket also handled a parallel lawsuit against the university, also decided on behalf of the student group, filed by a group called Business Leaders in Christ.