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IOWA CITY — After nearly four years fighting certain religious student organizations on its campus over who can and can’t be leaders, the University of Iowa on Friday lost again in federal court — with a panel of U.S. appellate judges blasting the institution for clear viewpoint discrimination.
“What the university did here was clearly unconstitutional,” according to a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. “It targeted religious groups for differential treatment under the human rights policy — while carving out exemptions and ignoring other violative groups with missions they presumably supported.”
The court found the UI and specific defendants — like former UI President Bruce Harreld and former UI Vice President of Student Life Melissa Shivers — “turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence or they proceeded full speed ahead knowing they were violating the law.”
UI officials did not answer questions from The Gazette about what the ruling will mean for its more than 600 registered student organizations and for enforcement of its human rights policy that bars groups from treating anyone differently based on race, sex, religion or other protected classification.
“The university respects the decision of the court and will move forward in accordance with the decision,” UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said.
Had the UI applied that policy equally, the court said, the campus might have survived a challenge — which came in the form of a pair of lawsuits from two Christian student groups that administrators deregistered because they required leaders to commit to and agree with their core beliefs.
But it didn’t, according to the Court of Appeals ruling.
“Of course, the university has a compelling interest in preventing discrimination,” 8th Circuit Judge Jonathan A. Kobes wrote. “But it served that compelling interest by picking and choosing what kind of discrimination was OK. Basically, some (student organizations) at the University of Iowa may discriminate in selecting their leaders and members, but others, mostly religious, may not.
“If the university honestly wanted a campus free of discrimination, it could have adopted an ‘all-comers’ policy,’ ” he wrote. “The university and individual defendants’ selective application of the human rights policy against InterVarsity was viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.”
The InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship — at the center of Friday’s opinion — sued the UI in 2018 on the heels of an earlier lawsuit from another UI student organization named Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC.
That first lawsuit stemmed from the university’s decision in 2017 to deregister BLinC for barring an openly gay member from becoming a leader because he refused to affirm the group’s belief that same-sex relationships are against the Bible.
BLinC in its lawsuit accused the university of selectively applying its human rights policy, pointing out many other UI groups — including Muslim groups, ethnic groups, political groups, fraternities and sororities — restrict leadership and membership based on gender, ethnicity or ideology.
After a federal judge agreed — requiring the UI allow BLinC to remain a registered organization pending final outcome of the case — the university conducted a systemic “student organization cleanup.”
“Reviewers were told to ‘look at religious student groups first’ for language that required leaders to affirm certain religious beliefs,” according to court documents. “Around the same time the reviewers turned their focus to religious groups, the university amended the human rights policy to expressly exempt sororities and fraternities from the policy prohibiting sex discrimination.”
The UI did end up deregistering 38 student groups, including InterVarsity. Many were temporarily deregistered for failing to submit updated documents — but others, like InterVarsity, lost student organization standing and benefits for requiring its leaders to affirm statements of faith.
Review was flawed
After InterVarsity sued, a district court judge found the UI human rights policy was reasonable and viewpoint neutral — but not as it was being applied.
“We agree,” according to the appeals court Friday, noting a judge had told the UI to equally apply its policy after likely violating BLinC’s constitutional rights.
“But instead of doing that, the university started a compliance review that prioritized religious organizations,” according to the appellate opinion. “The university’s fervor dissipated, however, once they finished with religious (student organizations).”
Sororities and fraternities got exemptions and other groups were allowed to continue basing leadership and membership on sex, race, veteran status and even some religious beliefs. As an example, a LoveWorks group started by the student barred from leadership with BLinC still requires members and leaders to sign a “gay-affirming statement of Christian faith.’”
“Despite that requirement — which violates the human rights policy just as much as InterVarsity’s — the university did nothing,” according to the appellate court. “We are hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination.”
Schools ‘on notice’
In a statement, Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket Law — a Washington, D.C.,-based advocacy firm that represented both BLinC and InterVarsity — said, “Schools are supposed to be a place of free inquiry and open thought.”
“But the school officials here punished opinions they didn’t like and promoted ones they did — all while using taxpayer dollars to do it,” Blomberg said. “The good news is that they’ve been held accountable, and school officials nationwide are on notice.”
All three of Iowa’s public universities in recent months came under lawmaker fire — and remain under the legislative microscope — for incidents involving suppression of free speech, specifically involving conservative voices and ideology.
The Iowa Legislature in its last session passed new laws enshrining into code Board of Regents’ free speech policies and practices.
Neither state nor Board of Regents’ officials on Friday immediately answered The Gazette’s questions about how much they’ve spent fighting lawsuits involving BLinC and InterVarsity. And both continue — with a federal appeals court in March finding UI officials can be held personally accountable.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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