Education

Religious freedom fight still taking on University of Iowa

Student group won partial victory last year; now it wants to make a point

Lawyer Eric Baxter, right, with Becket Law, attends a Jan. 19, 2018, hearing in U.S. District Court in Davenport. With h
Lawyer Eric Baxter, right, with Becket Law, attends a Jan. 19, 2018, hearing in U.S. District Court in Davenport. With him were Jake Estell and Brett Eikenberry, leaders of the University of Iowa student group Business Leaders in Christ. (Vanessa Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — A faith-based group at the University of Iowa stripped three years ago of its student organization status for barring a gay member from becoming a leader isn’t looking for a windfall in court.

But it is looking to make a point — years after it went to court against the UI and later won some — but not all — of its religious freedom lawsuit and was allowed back on campus.

The student group’s Washington, D.C.-based attorneys talked about that message earlier this week in arguments before a panel of three federal appellate judges.

“The Supreme Court cases on religious discrimination are clear on this issue. And so is this court … I would add that the free speech law is also exceedingly clear,” Eric Baxter — vice president and senior counsel at Becket Law, which has represented the UI student group Business Leaders in Christ since it was deregistered in late 2017 — said before the U.S. Court of Appeals. “You cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination just because you have a non-discrimination policy.”

A federal judge had seemingly decided this dispute in February 2019 with a split ruling on some of the 20 allegations against the UI — favoring the group on several, the university on others and leaving 13 claims unresolved, which attorneys agreed to drop.

But the student group — which goes by BLinC — wouldn’t drop one of the issues that the judge found in favor of the UI and its three individual co-defendants: Lyn Redington, UI dean of students at the time; Thomas Baker, assistant dean of students at the time; and William Nelson, executive director of the Iowa Memorial Union.

Deciding that “the law was not clearly established,” the judge gave Redington, Baker and Nelson “qualified immunity” — which shields government officials from lawsuits unless attorneys can show violation of clearly established laws or rights that any reasonable person would have known.

Becket appealed in May 2019, saying the individuals should not have qualified immunity.

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“Defendants had extensive relevant experience enforcing First Amendment principles on campus and expressly admitted targeting BLinC because of its beliefs,” its attorneys said.

“This is not a ‘close case,’” Becket continued in its appeal. “The law is clearly established that a state university may not target religious beliefs it abhors, discriminate against religious viewpoints, or entangle itself in internal religious affairs.”

Attorneys got the chance to argue their sides earlier this week before the U.S. Court of Appeals, which has taken the case under consideration and has not yet issued a ruling.

In an interview with The Gazette, Baxter said his client — which remains a UI student group within the Tippie College of Business — isn’t seeking a big payout.

“We’re only asking for $1,” he said. “We’re trying to send a message that this kind of discrimination is unlawful.”

The crux of BLinC’s argument is that UI administrators targeted it by deregistering it for views it found unsavory after a gay student complained about being barred from BLinC’s leadership ranks because of his sexual orientation.

The student organization said it requires its leaders to agree with the group’s beliefs and pointed to other student groups on campus with constitutions that also specified who can and can’t be a leader — like a Muslim organization and a gay-affirming Christian group.

That fact prompted the UI to engage in a sweeping review of its more than 500 student organizations, which turned up dozens of violations and more deregistrations — spawning another lawsuit from InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship.

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In her order, the federal judge mandated the UI allow BLinC back in good standing on campus unless it treats every student group the same — but found the issue convoluted enough to spare the individual defendants from liability.

Baxter this week said the administrators should have known better — citing decisions and instructions past UI administrators made as early as 1999 regarding the campus’ Christian Legal Society and its requirement that both leaders and members embrace traditional Christian believes, including those prohibiting “adultery, premarital sex … and homosexual conduct.”

Even when the UI student senate and later its student government refused recognition and denied the group funding, expressing discomfort with the organization, UI administrators affirmed that the constitution required funding requests be processed “in a content neutral manner” and “without any consideration of the organization’s viewpoint,” according to legal and supporting documents.

UI officials in 2008 further warned student leaders that they’re agents of the state and could be “subject to personal liability.”

An appellate court judge this week pressed attorneys representing the UI that point: that administrators for years had recited the prohibition against student organization viewpoint discrimination.

“Generally, I don’t think qualified immunity protects those who knowingly and intentionally violate constitutional rights,” the judge said. “So I’m wondering what your views are on the district court’s finding on that issue?”

Iowa Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson, representing the UI, argued the convergence of First Amendment and human rights isn’t clear-cut.

“Mr. Baxter and the court referred in part to records that dealt with memos that go back into the ‘90s and the early 2000s,” Thompson said. “The law in Iowa, the civil rights law in Iowa, was amended in 2007. The Varnum decision about (same-sex) marriage came down in 2009. And so the relationship between the human rights policy issue and the First Amendment issue was evolving, was changing.”

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BLinC’s Baxter said he does not know when to expect a ruling, that it could be weeks or months.

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

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