Correction: Can a ministry require its leaders to be 'Christian'?

Editor’s note: Please see the post correcting a crucial error in this post. Click here to go to that correction.

Yes, the headline for this post contains the word “Christian” inside “scare” quotes.

I did that on purpose, because it’s linked to the journalism point that I want to make about a recent Religion News Service story about a judge’s ruling on a clash between an evangelical campus ministry and the University of Iowa. The report contains lots of interesting and valid information, but I also think it contains a crucial error that RNS needs to correct.

This problem can be seen in the headline: “InterVarsity can require its leaders to be Christian, judge rules.”

Here’s my question: Did the judge say that it was OK for InterVarsity to require its leaders to be “Christians,” or that it was acceptable for the group require its leaders to affirm a specific set of traditional Christian beliefs on a number of topics, including marriage and sex?

My question: Would officials at the University of Iowa have been happy if some of the InterVarsity leaders were Episcopalians from parishes or dioceses that affirm gay marriage and embrace other doctrines that are consistent with a pro-LGBTQ stance? What if InterVarsity leaders came from other progressive flocks, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or the United Church of Christ?

I’m thinking that University of Iowa leaders would have accepted InterVarsity having “Christian” leaders, as long as they were liberal Christians whose doctrines were acceptable.

But look at the top of the RNS report (this is long, but essential):

Yes, a Christian student group can require its leaders to be Christian.

That’s the decision a judge reached … in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA v. the University of Iowa, a lawsuit the evangelical Christian campus ministry brought against the university and several of its leaders after the school booted InterVarsity and other religiously affiliated student groups for requiring their leaders to share their faiths.

Those groups also included Muslims, Sikhs and Latter-day Saints, according to a statement from InterVarsity.

“We must have leaders who share our faith,” InterVarsity Director of External Relations Greg Jao said in the written 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.”

At least three University of Iowa leaders are being held personally accountable to cover the costs of any damages awarded later to InterVarsity, according to U.S. District Judge Stephanie M. Rose’s … ruling, provided by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented InterVarsity.

Once again: The issue here isn’t whether InterVarsity requires its leaders to be Christian, but whether the group can remain on a taxpayer-funded state university campus while requiring its leaders to affirm a specific set of traditional Christian doctrines.

But liberal Christians are “Christians” too. Correct? Whether the InterVarsity leaders were “Christians” was not the issue in this case. The RNS report draws a bright red line in the wrong place, in this case.

You can see these specifics later in the RNS report. For example:

The lawsuit came in August 2018 after the University of Iowa claimed InterVarsity was violating the university’s human rights policy by requiring leaders to affirm the organization’s statement of faith. That policy prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or other attributes.

In June 2018, the university deregistered InterVarsity for more than a month — returning it to good standing only after it sued.

During that time, the University of Iowa limited InterVarsity’s access to campus, froze its bank account, shut down its website and labeled it “defunct” for lack of student interest, according to a statement from Becket.

So what is the actual issue here? Let’s keep reading:

All students are welcome to join InterVarsity, which hosts weekly Bible studies and monthly meetings for prayer, worship and discussion. However, leaders are required to affirm its statement of faith.

OK, what parts of that statement of faith clashed with the University of Iowa human rights policy?

Near the end of the RNS report, readers are finally told that the judge said the “university violated the group’s rights when it deregistered the group over its religious belief that sex should be reserved for marriage between a husband and wife.” There’s more:

The judge also pointed out the university’s uneven enforcement of its policies for student groups.

It allows fraternities and sororities to admit only men and women, respectively. … Another group, called Love Works, requires its leaders to affirm the LGBTQ community and acknowledge that “Jesus will be at the center of everything we do.”

Well, that’s another interesting plot twist. The implication is that Love Works is a campus ministry with doctrines that mesh with the University of Iowa creed. However, leaders of some religious groups — the Roman Catholic Church, to name one — would argue that it is proper to “affirm” LGBTQ people, while declining to affirm acts of sex outside of traditional marriage.

The bottom line: The story never really tells readers what was at stake in this University of Iowa case. Readers never find out that campus leaders had established rules in which some forms of Christian doctrine and practice were acceptable, while others were not.

RNS editors should post a correction making that clear.

One more time: Would Iowa officials have rejected InterVarsity if the ministry had allowed a sexually active gay Episcopalian to serve as an officer? Of course not. The problem is that it’s highly unlikely that a sexually active gay Episcopalian would affirm the doctrines in the InterVarsity faith statement.

What about a celibate gay Episcopalian? That’s another issue, isn’t it? Truth is, there are celibate gays and lesbians who could affirm the InterVarsity doctrinal statement. Would they be allowed into leadership roles in this ministry? Of course they would. This Iowa dispute centered on specific doctrines, not whether someone was a generic “Christian,” or not.

In conclusion, let me point readers to an “On Religion” column I wrote in 2014: “The new campus orthodoxy that forbids most old orthodoxies.” This column focused on a similar case at Vanderbilt University — which is a private school, which means it has more freedom to enforce its own policies and, yes, doctrines. Here is a key section of that piece, quoting the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican minister who worked with InterVarsity.

"What Vanderbilt did affirmed the beliefs of some religious groups and rejected those of others. That isn't secularism. Vanderbilt established that there is an orthodoxy on the campus, which means that it has taken a sectarian stand," said Warren. …

"The university established some approved doctrines and now wants to discriminate in order to defend them. ... As a private school it has every right to do that," she added, reached by telephone. Meanwhile, conservative Christian schools "have their own doctrinal statements, but they're very upfront about that. Students who go to those schools know what they're getting into. The question is whether Vanderbilt will be just as candid and tell students about these new limitations on free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion" on campus.

Once again: Private schools are allowed to discriminate on the basis of doctrine.

The University of Iowa, on the other hand, is a state university. Do officials there have the right to say that some forms of Christianity are acceptable, while others are not?

The judge said “no.”

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