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IOWA CITY - University of Iowa administrators should have known better when they 'discriminated against religious student groups” several years ago amid an uproar over a Christian organizations' refusal to let a gay member become a leader of the group, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
Nearly four years after the Business Leaders in Christ student group sued the UI for violating its free-speech, free-association and free-exercise rights by deregistering it for barring a gay member from a leadership post, a U.S. Court of Appeals found individual UI officials can be held personally accountable.
A District Court in 2018 had ruled they could not - granting them 'qualified immunity” - because 'the law was not clearly established.” But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed - at least regarding the free-speech and free-association claims from the student group, which goes by BLinC.
'We note at the outset what is not at issue in this appeal. The university defendants have not appealed the District Court's holding that they violated BLinC's First Amendment rights to free speech, expressive association, and free exercise through their disparate application of the university's Human Rights Policy,” according to a majority opinion from the three judges. 'Instead, the focus of this appeal is limited to whether, for purposes of qualified immunity, the law was clearly established that the individual defendants' conduct violated those rights.”
The majority agreed the law was clear on BLinC's free-speech and free-association claims, but not its free-exercise assertions, making UI administrators liable for two of the three issues.
In a statement, the UI said it 'is currently reviewing the decision and its options.”
Monday's decision doesn't necessarily mean individual UI administrators will have to pay the defendants any money.
'This is not a big money case,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, representing BLinC.
'What was at issue was making sure this doesn't happen again,” he said. 'That's what makes the ruling today so significant - is that it sends a message. Not only that a constitutional violation occurred … but that it's clearly established that this kind of selective enforcement violates the First Amendment.”
That, Blomberg said, is precedent-setting.
'That's going to be very important for religious student groups across the country, and at the University of Iowa,” he said.
While the appellate court judges didn't agree the law was clear on BLinC's free-exercise assertions - one judge, Jonathan A. Kobes, argued it was.
'I write separately because I think the law is clearly established on its free exercise claim, too,” Kobes wrote. 'The individual defendants' choice to deny BLinC an exemption from the Human Rights Policy - while allowing exemptions for other secular and religious groups (that they approve of) - shows that they sought to advance their interests only against specific religious conduct.”
He argued BLinC should have been entitled to the benefits afforded other student groups, including secular ones allowed to limit leadership posts to those who affirm their beliefs or who meet gender or racial qualifications,
'The purpose of qualified immunity is to shield good-faith actors who make mistaken judgments about unresolved issues of law, and it protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,'” which Kobes argued describes the UI administrators who 'had more than ‘fair warning' that their conduct was unconstitutional.”
'The law is clear: state organizations may not target religious groups for differential treatment or withhold an otherwise available benefit solely because they are religious,” he wrote. 'That is what happened here. The individual defendants may pick their poison: they are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution. Either way, they should not get qualified immunity.”
The decision comes amid a state legislative session rife with debate over free-speech issues across Iowa's public universities - including Republican bills and oversight hearings aimed at improving the campus' climate for conservative students, faculty, and staff.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, is among legislators who have hammered the universities for disparate treatment of conservatives. This court ruling is more confirmation of his constituents' concerns, he said Monday.
'This just is further proof that on university campuses in Iowa, there seems to be two different sets of rules - one for conservative students and one for everybody else,” he said. 'This is unacceptable. It needs to stop. And it will stop.”
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