Education

Federal judge presses University of Iowa on singling out religious student organization

'You haven't taken any action at all?'

Jake Estell, current president of former University of Iowa student organization Business Leaders in Christ, (left) along with the group's vice president Brett Eikenberry attending a hearing in U.S. District Court in Davenport on Jan. 19 with their attorney Eric Baxter, with the nonprofit law firm Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The group argued for a temporary injunction, while their lawsuit plays out, allowing them to participate in an upcoming campus recruitment fair. 

(Vanessa Miller, The Gazette)
Jake Estell, current president of former University of Iowa student organization Business Leaders in Christ, (left) along with the group's vice president Brett Eikenberry attending a hearing in U.S. District Court in Davenport on Jan. 19 with their attorney Eric Baxter, with the nonprofit law firm Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The group argued for a temporary injunction, while their lawsuit plays out, allowing them to participate in an upcoming campus recruitment fair. (Vanessa Miller, The Gazette)

A federal court judge who will decide whether the University of Iowa discriminated in deregistering a faith-based student organization asked UI attorneys Thursday if the institution has taken steps to ensure it is applying standards equally to all groups.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose pressed UI attorney George Carroll, specifically, on whether UI has addressed allegations it unequally enforced its human rights policy by deregistering Business Leaders in Christ for barring an openly-gay student. The student organization — which goes by BLinC — has argued other UI groups limit membership and leadership to those who agree with their ideals and religious beliefs, including Imam Mahdi, which reserves leadership posts for Shia Muslims and requires they “refrain from major sins.”

“Has the University of Iowa taken any steps to ensure that organization has modified its constitution?” Rose asked about the Muslim group. Carroll answered, “No.”

“You haven’t taken any action at all?” she said. “Then how do you respond to the organization’s assertion that you have singled them out?”

“If we need to go back today and look at all the constitutions, maybe that’s it,” Carroll said, arguing UI is a large institution with 500-some student organizations.

UI administrators in November deregistered BLinC — founded in spring 2014 — after a former member filed a formal complaint alleging he was prohibited from becoming a BLinC leader for being gay. BLinC in December sued the university in U.S. District Court, tapping the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to represent it and pushing the issue into the national spotlight amid Supreme Court debates over religious liberties and First Amendment rights.

BLinC’s position is that UI guidelines and policies let student groups organize according to common beliefs and values and “exercise free choice of members on the basis of their merits as individuals without restriction in accordance with the university policy on human rights.”

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The university’s position is that student organization membership should be open to anyone regardless of race, creed, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, gender identity or other protected class. When the judge on Thursday asked if the university has proactively enforced that stance, Carroll said it has not and only responds to specific complaints.

“This is a complaint-driven process,” Carroll said.

Judge Rose asked whether BLinC’s lawsuit pointing out other groups potentially violating the UI policy should qualify as a complaint.

“Having had information brought to its attention, the expectation is the university would act on and consider this to be a complaint,” Rose said, adding the university doesn’t necessarily need to scour all 500 student organizations for violations.

“But go to the one that pretty clearly is in violation” — a violation, she said, highlighted months ago.

“Should the university have followed it up?” Carroll asked. “Perhaps.”

The back-and-forth occurred during a Thursday hearing for a temporary injunction BLinC has requested in hopes of participating in a UI-based student recruitment fair next Wednesday. When the university deregistered BLinC, it stripped it of rights allowed other student groups — including the ability to participate in fairs and access student activity fees.

Rose did not immediately rule on the request to allow BLinC to continue functioning as a registered student organization until the case is resolved. She committed to do so, though, before Jan. 24 — the date of the fair.

Becket attorney Eric Baxter, representing BLinC, said his client group has between eight and 10 members and thus values access to the UI student body. Carroll argued BLinC has exaggerated its need for an immediate temporary injunction, arguing BLinC has not participated in every available recruitment fair.

In making her decision, Rose said she must consider whether BLinC has a “fair chance” to prevail in the end on their argument of discrimination. She seemed to indicate the UI human rights policy is neutral and generally applicable, but maintained questions about whether it has been equally applied.

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“It can’t be a neutral and generally applicable law if it’s being selectively enforced,” she said.

Carroll argued enforcement has not been selective because it’s complaint-driven, and the university hasn’t had other complaints.

“If Iowa should have viewed the letter from the attorney as a complaint against that Muslim group, we did not,” he said. “But to say we singled out BLinC — it’s just not accurate.”

Before Thursday’s hearing, several active UI-based religious student organizations filed a brief in support of BLinC’s request for an injunction — including Chabad, a Jewish-centered campus group; 24:7, an evangelical Christian student organization; Chi Alpha, a Pentecostal Christian group; Christian Medical & Dental Associations, a campus-based ministry in the UI Carver College of Medicine and College of Dentistry; and Ratio Christi, an Orthodox Christian academia-based ministry.

All of those organizations, according to the brief, require leaders share their basic religious convictions.

“Anything less threatens their effectiveness and the very existence of these groups,” according to court documents. “University officials’ sudden enforcement of the human rights policy in a manner that would preclude religious groups from upholding their basic values is unprecedented and endangers the very existence of organizations that provide value and benefits to a diverse community.”

Baxter, after the hearing, said he feels confident the judge will rule in his client’s favor. But he articulated a hope that, in the end, the court lets student groups continue aligning leadership with beliefs, rather than stripping that ability from all student groups.

“Why we’re even here is really a mystery to us,” he said. “The university is clearly targeting my clients only because it doesn’t like its particular religious viewpoint.”

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Larger social forces likely are to blame, Baxter said. Citing instances in the 1970s when universities tried to kick out gay-rights organizations, he said, courts found “you can’t do that just because you disagree with an organization’s views.”

“And now the tide has turned,” Baxter said, saying it might be less acceptable to hold “traditional” values.

“This is an astounding case where a state university has told a religious student group that it must revise its beliefs and change how it selects its own leaders if it wants to participate on campus on equal footing with everyone else,” he said. “And all our client is asking is to be treated the same as every other group.”

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

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