Education

Faith-based student group accuses University of Iowa of continued discrimination

33 UI faith-based groups in limbo, pending court case

Business Leaders in Christ president senior enterprise management major Jake Estell (center) and sophomore business analytics and Spanish double major Liz Swanson talk with a student at their display during the UI Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Business Leaders in Christ president senior enterprise management major Jake Estell (center) and sophomore business analytics and Spanish double major Liz Swanson talk with a student at their display during the UI Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The faith-based student organization sparring with the University of Iowa over conflicting allegations of discrimination is re-upping its accusations of unfair treatment — telling a federal judge the university is in a position of power, which it’s abusing.

“Since the university controls our grades, our degrees, and in some cases our paychecks, and can have significant influence on our future employment, the university’s accusations make us worry that we will be treated unfairly,” organization members said in new documents filed in the case pitting the UI against student group Business Leaders in Christ.

Recruiting new members, and specifically new leaders, to join the 5-year-old student organization — which goes by BLinC — has been challenged since UI administrators in fall 2017 deregistered the group for denying an openly-gay member the chance to be a leader.

Accused of discrimination and violating the UI human rights policy, BLinC fought back with its own discrimination claim, filing a federal lawsuit accusing the UI of violating the group’s First Amendment rights and treating it differently for its religious policies.

On that second point, a judge agreed the UI was unequally enforcing its human rights policy by taking exclusive action against BLinC, even though other groups have similarly restrictive membership and leadership requirements. The judge ordered the UI to allow BLinC back under its student organization umbrella — at least temporarily.

UI administrators responded by launching a massive review of its 500-plus student groups’ constitutions, eventually kicking off campus 39 that were out of compliance — including nine with religious ties, like InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship and Imam Mahdi Organization.

When InterVarsity joined the litigation fray in August 2018, filing its own lawsuit accusing the UI of discrimination, the university halted its review of faith-based groups until the court cases resolved. It let back on campus nine faith-based groups it had deregistered. It halted the in-process reviews of others.

the list

And in a list provided to the court last week, UI revealed the total number of faith-based groups with pending registration status tops 30 — even while other secular groups with leadership or membership caveats based on race, sex, military service and the like are operating as usual.

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The current constitution for the UI Veteran’s Association, for example, restricts membership to those who are “military associated,” including past or present service members, dependents, or students receiving GI Bill benefits.

“For a public institution to single out religious student groups and threaten their expulsion is textbook Big Brother,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a high-profile Washington, D.C.-based firm that’s worked on religious-freedom cases nationally and is representing BLinC.

“The university’s blatant double-standard and its desire to target and track religious groups in the name of ‘non-discrimination,’ while ignoring dozens of other bigger groups who engage in more so-called ‘discrimination,’ is double-think that would make the ‘Ministry of Truth’ blush,” Baxter said in a statement, referring to the institution in George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Becket on Tuesday called the new list of on-hold religious student groups a “watch list” of organizations on “probationary status.” The university produced the list after a judge requested a complete log of registered student organizations.

UI RESPONSE

UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck on Tuesday said the attorney for BLinC and InterVarsity “has blatantly misrepresented the facts and documentation” the university filed with the court on Friday.

“All religious organizations remain in registered status while the court decides, and ultimately directs, the university on how it should address the conflict that currently exists between the First Amendment and the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” Beck said.

“The university agreed with counsel for BLinC and InterVarsity to place the review of religious organization constitutions on hold once the InterVarsity lawsuit was filed against the university with the understanding that plaintiffs’ counsel would not file any further lawsuits pertaining to this issue pending the decision by the court in BLinC.

“The university has maintained the registered status of all religious and faith-based groups, allowing them full access to all benefits, funding, facilities, and resources that are offered to all other student organizations on campus. Therefore, the university has not placed any religious student organization on ‘probationary status,’ as insinuated by BLinC’s legal counsel. ...

“The University of Iowa does not tolerate discrimination of any kind in accordance with federal and state law.

trial march 4

In a separate court filing, Becket details ways it believes the university is continuing to discriminate against BLinC — noting the UI has accused BLinC of seeking special privilege to “perpetuate discriminatory behavior toward gay, lesbian and transgender students.”

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“It has also said that BLinC is threatening a ‘pillar of our democracy,’ that it ‘openly discriminates’ against fellow students on the basis of ‘sexual orientation and gender,’ that our Christian beliefs were themselves ‘facially discriminatory,’ that ‘the people of Iowa disapprove’ of the way we select our leaders, and that we have a ‘desire to participate in illegal discrimination,’” according to the court documents. “Those statements are false and unfair.”

Those characterizations and other UI actions have made recruitment more difficult, according to BLinC, which reported membership at around five students.

“Past BLinC student leaders have been investigated and interrogated by university attorneys, have had to produce sensitive personal religious communications that would otherwise have been private, have had to meet with university officials in person to explain and justify their religious beliefs, and have had to undergo depositions,” BLinC argued in its court filing. “These are demanding and heavy burdens for students who are just trying to work and to get an education.”

The BLinC lawsuit is scheduled for a jury trial March 4.

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

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