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IOWA CITY — Four years after the University of Iowa began vehemently denying allegations it discriminated against a student organization by punishing it for barring an openly gay member from becoming a leader of the group, the state will pay the law firm representing the student group nearly $2 million.
In a pair of judgments from lawsuits that the Business Leaders in Christ student group — known as BLinC — filed against the UI in 2017 and that Intervarsity Christian Fellowship filed in 2018, the U.S. District Court ordered the university to pay a combined $1.93 million for attorney fees and damages.
On Monday, the State Appeal Board approved writing two checks to The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based legal firm that represented both BLinC and Intervarsity in their lawsuits against the public university.
The first for $1.4 million covers attorney fees in the BLinC case — a total that incorporates a 10 percent discount from Becket and “does not include any other fees incurred since the parties began negotiating after the end of July.” The second for $553,508 covers attorney fees and $20,000 of damages in the Intervarsity case.
The payments close the yearslong hard-fought disputes that involved numerous injunctions, summary judgments, appeals, affirmations, requests for reconsideration and final rulings.
Before voting Monday to approve the nearly $2 million in payments, State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald asked Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson to explain the decisions that propelled such costly litigation.
“When this stuff starts out — they ask to be a student group and somebody tells them no — I assume they don't come to your office for that kind of advice,” Fitzgerald said. “Do they get some sort of legal advice down there? The Law School or somebody tells them, ‘Hey you can’t do that.’”
Thompson explained that the UI does consult with its Office of the General Counsel and “We were involved in this process from the beginning.” The situation was complicated, he said, and began with the gay student filing a human rights complaint against BLinC. Thompson asserted the two lawsuits were part of a bigger push to establish legal precedence.
“One of the reasons that these cases were brought and this started, this was initially a test case that was designed to create litigation,” Thompson said.
In summarizing her order for payments, U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose itemized time and money spent on the cases.
For the BLinC lawsuit, attorneys:
- Billed about 2,300 hours — equal to three months;
- Pored over 23,000-plus pages of documents;
- And took eight depositions;
Out-of-state attorneys charged $759 and $914 an hour, while local attorneys charged $295 to $350 an hour.
“Although the rates requested for plaintiff’s out-of-state counsel are significantly higher, between $759 and $914 for the two attorneys, they are reasonable given the complex nature of the issues in this case and the extensive experience plaintiff’s counsel has in constitutional litigation,” Rose wrote.
For the Intervarsity lawsuit, attorneys:
- Billed more than 850 hours — equal to about 35 days;
- Reviewed more than 6,000 pages of documents;
- And deposed four witnesses.
“The submitted costs align with the court’s reasonable expectations for litigation of this complexity and duration,” Rose wrote in her judgment.
The UI received its final blow in the lengthy litigation over the summer when a panel of U.S. appellate judges sided with the student groups in blasting the institution for clear viewpoint discrimination.
“What the university did here was clearly unconstitutional,” according to a July 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 that the university and the named defendants — including then-UI President Bruce Harreld and then-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.”
BLinC was first to sue UI in 2017 when the campus yanked its student organization status — including not allowing it at campus recruiting fairs — after a member complained he was blocked from becoming a leader when he refused to affirm the group’s belief that same-sex relationships are against the Bible.
In its lawsuit, BLinC accused the UI of selectively applying its human rights policy, noting other student groups — like Muslim and ethnic groups and fraternities and sororities — are allowed to restrict leadership and membership based on gender, ethnicity and ideology.
After a judge agreed and ordered the UI to reinstate BLinC until the case was resolved, the university tried to conduct a systemic “student organization cleanup.” In doing so, it deregistered another 38 student groups — including Intervarsity, prompting its lawsuit. Attorneys argued the UI targeted religious groups — and the appellate court agreed.
“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).”
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