Education

UI must let faith-based student group on campus

Judge rules university unevenly applied its policies

Business Leaders in Christ president Jake Estell, Liz Swanson and Business Leaders in Christ vice president Brett Eikenberry set up a display Jan. 24, 2018, during the UI Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Business Leaders in Christ president Jake Estell, Liz Swanson and Business Leaders in Christ vice president Brett Eikenberry set up a display Jan. 24, 2018, during the UI Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Although a Christian student group this week claimed victory over the University of Iowa in a “religious liberty” case when a court ruled the UI must let it keep operating on campus, the judge included a caveat leaving the door cracked for a repeat revocation.

The order, signed by U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie M. Rose, barred the UI from deregistering Business Leaders in Christ as long as the student group doesn’t change its updated statement of faith or leader-selection standards outlined in its constitution — which mimics verbatim the UI human rights policy — and as long as the UI continues to allow other student groups exemptions from its policy.

“The court stresses the importance of the second qualification,” Rose’s order said. “The injunction does not grant BLinC a special exemption if the university applies the human rights policy in a manner permitted by the Constitution.”

Throughout her ruling on the dispute that involves claims of discrimination on both sides, Rose highlighted the public university’s uneven application of its human rights policy. That policy prohibits differential treatment based on protected class — including race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and military service.

But “the university has approved the constitutions of numerous organizations that explicitly limit access to leadership or membership based on religious views, race, sex, and other characteristics,” according to Rose’s ruling.

She listed examples: Love Works, which requires leaders to sign a “gay-affirming statement of Christian faith;” 24-7, which requires leaders to sign a statement of faith and live according to a code of conduct; House of Lorde, which conducts membership interviews to maintain “a space for black queer individuals;” and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which restricts membership to Chinese students and scholars.

In 2017, the university booted BLinC from operating and recruiting on campus, accusing it of discrimination and violating its human rights policy after barring an openly gay member from becoming a leader.

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BLinC sued, accusing the UI of discrimination based on its religious views and of violating its First Amendment rights.

Throughout the legal battle, according to Rose, UI administrators have admitted to allowing some groups to select members and leaders based on protected class if the ideology of those groups aligned with the institution’s mission.

In response to BLinC’s lawsuit and an earlier court ruling in the group’s favor, the UI last year launched a sweeping review of its 500-plus student organizations. As a result, it deregistered nearly 40 groups and left others in limbo.

“The university reviewed all (registered student organizations) constitutions in 2018, and there remain groups that limit membership or leadership based on characteristics protected under the policy,” according to Rose.

“The undisputed evidence shows BLinC was prevented from expressing its viewpoints on protected characteristics while other student groups ‘espousing another viewpoint (were) permitted to do so,’” wrote Rose, who added, “The University allows Love Works to limit leadership to individuals who share its religious beliefs on homosexuality. But BLinC may not.”

The judge indicated she was unswayed by the university’s assertions it was simply following its policy in deregistering BLinC and that the action had nothing to do with the group’s beliefs.

“Rather than burden BLinC’s constitutional rights, the university could, for example, neutrally and consistently apply its human rights policy,” Rose wrote. “Similarly, it could adopt an ‘all-comers’ policy, a change which would dramatically promote its goals of diversity and equal access to academic opportunity.”

Rose ordered the UI to pay a symbolic $1 to BLinC. And she warned of too broadly applying her findings.

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“The court suspects that some observers will portray this case as a fundamental conflict between non-discrimination laws and religious liberty,” she wrote. “Appealing as that may be, it overinflates the issues before the court.”

In her order, Rose noted the difficulty of reaching a conclusion, even commenting at one point, “This is a close call.”

UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck told The Gazette, in response to the ruling released Wednesday, that officials are reviewing it and “will follow the court order.”

Although some aspects of the BLinC lawsuit remain unsettled, an attorney representing the group said he doubts the case will go to trial March 4 as was planned.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — a Washington, D.C., firm that’s worked on religious freedom cases nationally and is representing BLinC — also is representing InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, which similarly sued the UI.

That case remains set for trial in 2020. But Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said he expects a similar ruling sooner.

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