Higher education

Student group sues University of Iowa over allegations it rejected a gay student

UI: organizations must adhere to mission, policies, and laws

The Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

IOWA CITY — A now-defunct Christian-based University of Iowa student organization is suing the school for deregistering it after a member said he was discriminated against for being gay.

Business Leaders in Christ — founded in spring 2014 and commonly referred to as BLinC — has rejected the accusation they denied a member a leadership post “because he is openly gay,” according to the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court.

Rather, the suit states, the group focused its rejection on the nuance the student rejected “BLinC’s religious beliefs and would not follow them.” Those beliefs included the sentiment, according to the lawsuit, that leaders who engaged in sinful conduct “had a Christian duty to admit that the conduct was sinful” and “turn from the conduct and strive to live in a manner that was worth of Christ’s sacrifice.”

The accusing member, who is not named, told the group he didn’t plan to follow its beliefs on sexual misconduct and intended to pursue same-sex relationships. The group, thus, rejected his application for a leadership position.

Hannah Thompson, who was BLinC’s president at the time, stressed her decision “was not because he was gay, but because he did not agree with BLinC’s biblically based views on sexual conduct.”

The member in February filed a complaint with the university, and — following an investigation and interviews with both sides — UI administrators in November deregistered the student organization.

In a statement to The Gazette, the university affirmed it does “not tolerate discrimination of any kind in accordance with federal and state law.” Officials affirmed the institution respects the rights of students, faculty, and staff to practice the religion of their choice.

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“However, when a voluntary student organization chooses to become a registered student organization, it must adhere to the mission of the university, the UI’s policies and procedures, and all local, state, and federal laws,” according to the UI statement.

The university found BLinC violated its Human Rights Policy and the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

UI Student Government President Jacob Simpson said his organization supports the university’s decision.

“I believe it is critical that all registered student organizations follow the university policy on human rights, as the Office of the Dean of Students clearly states in the policies regarding student organizations,” he said.

The lawsuit comes at a time of divisive political discourse nationally, often along the lines of race, religion, and sexual orientation. The U.S. Supreme Court currently is deliberating a case involving a Colorado baker who declined to design a custom wedding cake for a gay couple, saying his Christian faith prohibited him from supporting same-sex marriages in that way.

Representing BLinC in its case against UI is the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit legal and educational institute that’s been involved in several lawsuits against President Donald Trump and represented Hobby Lobby in a landmark religious-liberty case that went to the Supreme Court.

In a statement this week, Becket senior counsel Eric Baxter called the UI case “premeditated religious discrimination, plain and simple.”

“A state school cannot demand a change to students’ faith any more than the U.S. president could demand a change to the Bible,” he said.

Jacob Estell, student president of BLinC, also issued a statement saying, “This is 2017, not 1984.”

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“Our beliefs weren’t made by us, and they can’t be changed by us either — certainly not just to satisfy Orwellian government rules,” he said in a statement.

One Iowa, a state-based organization backing LGTBQ rights, came out Wednesday in support of the university -- saying any group getting money and resources from a public university like UI must follow policies and procedures along with local and state laws.

“Both the Iowa Civil Rights Act and the University of Iowa’s Human Rights Policy are crystal clear,” One Iowa Executive Director Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel said in a statement. “Discrimination based on sexual orientation is unacceptable at a publicly funded institution.”

In the UI statement, officials affirmed organization membership should be open to anyone regardless of race, creed, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, gender identity, or other classification, and groups should guarantee “equal opportunity and equal access to membership, programming, facilities, and benefits.”

BLinC’s lawsuit reiterates the student in question could have continued as a member but, to carry out its mission to be Business Leaders in Christ, its leaders must embrace and follow BLinC’s mission.

University guidelines recognize student groups have the right to organize according to common beliefs and values, and UI policy lets registered student organizations “exercise free choice of members on the basis of their merits as individuals without restriction in accordance with the university policy on human rights.”

The suit highlights other student groups that seem to have similar restrictions on members and leaders, including the UI Feminist Union that limits membership to students who agree with principals, like support for abortion, and the Islamic organization Imam Mahdi that reserves leadership roles for Shia Muslims and requires they “refrain from major sins … and endeavor to avoid minor sins.”

A registered organization created by the student who complained about BLinC — named Love Works — requires executive officers to sign and agree to a mission statement and core beliefs, including an affirmation welcoming anyone “regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or ability” and supporting “those in the LGBTQ community who have been pushed aside from many other faith communities.”

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The university did not immediately respond to The Gazette’s questions about how those organization’s requirements were different from those at BLinC.

According to the lawsuit, Dean of Students Lyn Redington said BLinC could continue to exist independent of the university. But BLinC would be denied recognized student group benefits, which include the ability to receive school funding, inclusion in UI publications, use of UI trademarks, use of campus facilities, and use of UI vehicles and IT resources.

BLinC is asking a judge to order the university to stop discriminating against it and allow its registration as a student group; issue a permanent injunction barring enforcement of the UI human rights policy, which it says violates the constitution; and pay damages and attorneys fees.

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

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