Judge sides with faith-based group in case against University of Iowa

Business Leaders in Christ let back on campus to recruit new members

The Old Capitol building is shown in Iowa City on Monday, March 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The Old Capitol building is shown in Iowa City on Monday, March 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Citing “selective enforcement” of an “otherwise reasonable” policy, a federal judge has ordered the University of Iowa to let a faith-based group recruit members on campus Wednesday even though it’s accused of discriminating against a gay student.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose sided with Business Leaders in Christ in granting a temporary injunction, which — for now — reinstates the group’s status as a student organization and allows it to recruit at a fair in the Iowa Memorial Union.

“BLinC’s motion is granted based solely upon the university’s selective enforcement of an otherwise reasonable and viewpoint neutral nondiscrimination policy,” Rose’s order states.

Representatives for Business Leaders in Christ — which goes by BLinC and has eight to 10 members — said they’ll have a table at the 6 p.m. fair in the student union, an opportunity granted to UI-affiliated groups.

“The court has told the University of Iowa to stop discriminating against BLinC because of its religious beliefs,” said Eric Baxter, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington firm.

“Public universities can’t tell religious student groups what to believe or who to pick as their leaders,” Baxter said in a statement about the case, which has been hoisted into the national discourse over religious liberties and First Amendment rights.

“The court has ordered the university to restore Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) to registered student organization status for 90 days,” a UI statement said. “The university respects the decision of the court and has acted accordingly by extending an invitation to BLinC to participate in the student organization fair on January 24th. The university will not comment on the merits of the case per its policy on pending litigation.”

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BLinC, founded in the UI Tippie College of Business in 2014, was stripped of its registered status — and thus student organization benefits — in November after telling a member he couldn’t become a leader in the group if he acted on his feelings toward men.

The student complained and the UI took away BLinC’s registration, citing violations of its human rights policy.

In December, BLinC sued the university, accusing it of unequally enforcing its policy. It noted that other UI groups limit leadership to those who agree with their ideology or religious beliefs. The student group Imam Mahdi, for example, reserves leadership posts for Shia Muslims.

In its lawsuit, BLinC argued UI guidelines and policies let student groups organize according to common beliefs and values and exercise free choice in members based on “their merits as individuals without restriction in accordance with the university policy on human rights.”

The university has said 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 Judge Rose asked during a hearing last week why the UI hasn’t deregistered other groups that limit leadership or even membership to those with like beliefs, UI attorney George Carroll said enforcement is complaint-driven. And, he said, the UI hasn’t had other complaints.

In deciding whether to grant BLinC the temporary injunction, Rose said she had to consider whether the group has a “fair chance” to win its case. She said it does.

“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.”

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