Education

Business Leaders in Christ 'thrilled to be back'

Faith-based UI group fields new members at fair on judge order

Business Leaders in Christ president senior enterprise management major Jake Estell, sophomore business analytics and Spanish double major Liz Swanson and Business Leaders in Christ vice president sophomore soon to be management and marketing major Brett Eikenberry set up their display during the UI Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Business Leaders in Christ president senior enterprise management major Jake Estell, sophomore business analytics and Spanish double major Liz Swanson and Business Leaders in Christ vice president sophomore soon to be management and marketing major Brett Eikenberry set up their display during the UI Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — A previously-barred University of Iowa student organization was among more than 160 involved in an on-campus recruitment fair Wednesday after a federal judge on Tuesday forced the university to allow it to participate.

Business Leaders in Christ, which UI administrators deregistered in November following accusations it discriminated against an openly gay member, looked like other groups showcased at the Iowa Memorial Union fair — with banner, cookies, and members fielding questions.

“We’re Business Leaders in Christ,” Jake Estell, president of the group that goes by BLinC, told one student who lingered near his table. “We just host a bible study basically every week and we talk about how the bible interacts … Would you like a cookie?”

“I am here for a cookie,” the student said.

More than halfway into the two-hour fair, Estell said 12 people had signed up to receive more information about the group, which is hovering at 10 members right now. He thought maybe six of those would materialize into actual members.

“We are definitely excited and thrilled to be back in this setting,” Estell said. “This is definitely where we are most comfortable.”

The group is less comfortable in the courtroom, where Estell and his attorneys were last week and where they will be again after suing the university in December on allegations it discriminated against BLinC by deregistered the group for barring an openly gay member from becoming a leader.

Estell said few people during Wednesday’s fair mentioned the high-profile court case, which has gained national attention amid swirling debates over free speech and religious freedoms.

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“We had one guy in support of us — really fully in support,” Estell said. “So that was really cool.”

BLinC leadership — and attorneys representing the group — have been steadfast in their argument that UI guidelines and policies allow student groups to organize according to common beliefs and values and exercise free choice in members based.

They’ve highlighted other UI student groups as examples — including Imam Mahdi, which reserves leadership posts for Shia Muslims; the UI Feminist Union, which limits membership to those who agree with its principals, including support for abortion; Students for Life, which requires members to hold “pro-life beliefs;” and the Korean American Student Association, requiring “an optimistic attitude toward Korean culture.”

UI officials, citing their human rights policy, have said student organizations should be open to anyone, regardless of race, creed, color, religions, national origin, age, sex, gender identity, or other protected class.

BLinC’s lawsuit countered that UI singled them out in its enforcement of that policy and requested an immediate injunction from the deregistration, arguing a First Amendment violation irreparably harming them by yanking university resources — like access to recruitment fairs.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose on Tuesday sided with BLinC, calling the university’s policy “reasonable” but agreeing with the assessment of “selective enforcement.”

“BLinC has shown that the university does not consistently and equally apply its Human Rights Policy,” Rose wrote. “This raises an issue regarding whether BLinC’s viewpoint was the reason it was not allowed to operate with membership requirements that the university had determined violated the policy, while at the same time Imam Mahdi was not subjected to any enforcement action.”

She granted BLinC’s temporary injunction — just for 90 days — allowing BLinC to participate in Wednesday’s recruitment fair and giving the university time to amend its enforcement procedures. A decision on whether BLinC should be reinstated on a permanent basis — and allowed to pick leaders who embrace its faith — is expected later this year, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based firm representing BLinC.

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The three-month reprieve should get the student organization through the rest of the school year — it expects to continue meeting in the UI Pappajohn Business Building. Estell said he hopes final resolution will come before the next academic year.

“We were definitely pleased and excited that a judge ruled on our side, in our favor, so we can get back to being a student org like any other organization,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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