Education

Judge sides with University of Iowa Christian student group accused of discrimination

UI reports more than 350 other student orgs also out of sync with policy

Business Leaders in Christ President Jake Estell, student Liz Swanson and BLinC Vice President Brett Eikenberry set up a display Jan. 24 during the University of Iowa Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Business Leaders in Christ President Jake Estell, student Liz Swanson and BLinC Vice President Brett Eikenberry set up a display Jan. 24 during the University of Iowa Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — A Christian student group kicked off the University of Iowa campus last year for barring a gay student from becoming a leader will be allowed to continue functioning as a registered student organization — despite a UI request it lose that status by the end of June.

The university earlier this year agreed with Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC — the UI faith-based group at the center of the controversy — to extend through June 30 a court order nullifying its deregistration.

But June 12, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, UI attorneys asked a judge to reinstate its banishment of BLinC.

In its request, the university cited the high court case — even though the same-sex couple did not win it — by arguing the decision nonetheless “reaffirmed the principle that content neutral and generally applicable laws may infringe on certain First Amendment rights.”

“In this case, the University of Iowa’s Human Rights Policy is content neutral and generally applicable to all registered student organizations,” according to the UI filing.

Trouble is, according to a judge who on June 28 rejected the request, UI administrators haven’t applied the policy equally.

“It appears a large number of student organizations were operating in violation of the university’s stated policies at the time the university revoked BLinC’s registered student organization status,” U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose wrote in her opinion, citing new data provided by the UI’s own review of how it applies its human rights policy.

“The university does not reconcile that fact with how the proceedings against BLinC were carried out,” Rose wrote. “Presently, too much remains unknown about what role BLinC’s viewpoint played, if any, in the decision to deregister the group.”

BLinC filed a lawsuit against the UI after it was kicked off campus in November. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has gained nationwide attention for its involvement in high profile religious-freedom cases, like one involving Hobby Lobby — is representing BLinC.

The student group accused the UI of, among other things, discrimination for unequally enforcing its policy. It noted that other UI groups also limit leadership and even membership in some cases to those who agree with their ideology or religious beliefs. BLinC has pointed to the UI student group Imam Mahdi as one that reserves leadership posts for Shia Muslims.

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.

But a recent UI review of how it administers its human rights policy found just 157 of 513 student organizations were in compliance by having the full and correct human rights clause in their constitutions. More than 350 groups were out of compliance, according to the review, which was part of the court record.

On April 20, the UI told non-compliant student groups to submit corrected constitutions by May 3. On June 1, according to court documents, UI emailed again emailed non-compliant groups warning they would be deregistered if they didn’t submit proper paperwork by June 15.

As of June 8, according to court records, 375 registered student organizations were in compliance with the UI human rights clause and 186 were not — including 53 fraternity and sorority chapters, which do not have constitutions.

On June 1, the university began reaching out to its fraternities and sororities asking they submit constitutions and show they are in compliance with federal Title IX exemptions for gender by Sept. 4, or lose their registration.

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In siding with BLinC, Judge Rose is allowing the group to remain on campus and continue receiving benefits of registered student organizations — including access to campus facilities and student fees — through the summation of the case, which is set for jury trial March 4, 2019.

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

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