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Anybody who cares about identity, diversity, civil society, civic associations, gay rights, religious freedom, and universities – which is to say, anybody who cares about America - should be asking themselves hard questions about what’s been happening at the University of Iowa.

          Here’s the situation as I understand it. A University of Iowa student group with about ten members called Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) did not allow an openly gay student to fill a leadership position at the organization, claiming that LGBT identity/sexual activity was in violation of the group’s statement of faith. As a result, administrators at the University of Iowa deregistered the student group, citing the University’s human rights policy, which says student groups should be open to anyone regardless of race, color, creed, religion, or other identity, with special attention to protected classes.

          BLinC pointed out that lots of student groups are based around particular identities and affinities, and such associations generally reserve certain privileges for people who share those identities and affinities, thereby excluding people who do not. If the University was going to deregister BLinC, what was it going to do about the Imam Mahdi group, which wants its leaders to be Shia Muslim students? Or the Korean American Student Association? Students For Life? The Feminist Union? Would they all be required to have governing documents that complied with the University of Iowa’s human rights policy?

          It turns out that, out of 513 student organizations at the University of Iowa, just 157 were in compliance with the University’s human rights policy. That means a whopping 356 were out of line.

          A federal judge, in ordering that BLinC be temporarily restated as an official student organization, wondered why the University had applied its policy so unevenly.  I find this case extremely important and not at all easy.

          It’s important because one of the distinctive qualities of the United States is its thriving civil society, that area of public life that is generally apart from commercial interests and is not principally dictated by the state. A civil society is formed by people who create voluntary associations, often around a particular identity. In some parts of the world, such civic groups can be identity-based militias engulfed in an internal civil war. In the United States, more often than not, diverse civic groups both express their particular identities and cooperate positively with others.

Campuses are one of the places where young people learn how to do this. When the College Democrats and the College Republicans organize a political debate on campus, they are both expressing their distinctive identities and they are cooperating in a manner that enriches the public square. The latter depends on the former. In other words, cooperation between identity groups can only take place if there are identity groups to begin with.

          What makes this case difficult? Put simply: there are multiple competing values at play. One is the value around protecting people from harm, especially historically marginalized groups. Can you imagine being the gay student who was told he couldn’t run for the leadership role in that student organization? It tightens my throat to even think about it. Good for the administrators at the University of Iowa for wanting to protect that student’s dignity.

          But what happens when applying that human rights policy violates another value: the principle of identity-based groups being allowed to define their own identities? Defining identity means, at some level, excluding others. The University of Iowa, for example, boasts about being a premier public research university. It excludes – which is to say, it discriminates against - applicants whose grades and test scores do not meet its definition of ‘premier’. 

          I want to examine this issue from multiple angles, with special attention to the central questions in play and the core values in tension. As I understand them, they include:

  • The value of protecting people from harm, especially marginalized people;
  • The value of allowing identity-based associations to constitute themselves;
  • The question of when to use coercive power (a requirement coming from on high to change the constitution of a student group with the threat of de-recognition is an example of coercive power);
  • The definition of diversity and pluralism;
  • The distinctive nature of religious groups;
  • The identity groups that university administrators are most likely to sympathize with, and those they are most likely to be suspicious of;
  • The complex ways identity mixes with power.


I want to be clear that I am not reporting anything or doing original research. I am offering thoughts from a variety of angles based on the facts reported in these articles:


A few other things:

I will be relying a great deal on my friend John Inazu’s remarkable book Confident Pluralism (which just came out in paperback), both for its pithy summaries of relevant Supreme Court decisions and for its general approach to what it means to build a healthy diverse democracy.

I will not shy away from the tensions between core values but instead explore them, and I will do so by attempting to shed light rather than generate heat. Intellectual life, I believe, is principally characterized by deep dives into the murky waters of difficult issues, not loud shouts from one side of easy ones.

I’m doing this as a three-part series because I think it’s easier to consider distinct points in separate, bite-sized chunks. At the end I’ll post the whole shebang on this blog as a single piece.

For now, I want to leave you with a thought exercise. In complex cases, I find it helpful to imagine a scenario where the person/group at the center would evoke my instinctive sympathy. Here is such a case:

Let’s say that the acronym BLinC does not stand for Business Leaders in Christ (the student group at the center of the initial storm at Iowa), but rather Black Leaders in Christ. It’s a group for African American Christians and it has a distinguished record of providing emotional and spiritual support for a racial minority on campus in a way that helps its members thrive, in the classroom and beyond. In fact, let’s say a university study showed that black students involved in Black Leaders in Christ graduated at a significantly higher rate than other black students. In interviews, those graduates pointed to their involvement in BLinC as a key reason for this.  

There are all kinds of students who attend the meetings, social events, worship services and volunteer projects of Black Leaders in Christ. There are white kids, Korean Americans, Indian Americans, etc. But the leadership of the group is reserved for African American Christians.

A Puerto Rican student decides to run for President. She is gently told that there are plenty of other places for her to offer leadership, but she cannot run for the exec board. If you are a university administrator, do you ask Black Leaders in Christ to change its policy and practice or else be de-registered?

Now let’s say the group is called BMinC – Black Men in Christ. The mission statement of the group underscores the particular challenges black men face in American society. The purpose of BMinC is to provide special spiritual, social and emotional support for that particular group. In this case, all activities are reserved for black men. Let’s say the difference in graduation rates for participants in this group versus other black men on campus is even more stark.  

Do you begin de-registration proceedings?

What if Black Men in Christ has the same kind of policies around sexual identity/expression that many other conservative religious groups have (this would include not just Christians but many Muslims, and Jews and Hindus as well), and effectively bars openly gay students from running for office. Does that trigger de-registration?

Nothing easy about this one, friends. I’ll post Part II tomorrow.



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