Feds: University of Iowa violated Constitution

Justice Department wades into fight over religious groups

Business Leaders in Christ member Liz Swanson talks Jan, 24 with student Ryan Chaglasian during the UI Student Organization Fair a the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Business Leaders in Christ member Liz Swanson talks Jan, 24 with student Ryan Chaglasian during the UI Student Organization Fair a the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa violated the U.S. Constitution by deregistering faith-based groups for holding membership and leadership requirements that administrators say defy the school’s human rights policy, according to a new justice department statement filed in federal court.

The Justice Department last week waded into the war over whether the UI was within its rights to deregister the student group Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC, in late 2017 — and then other faith-based groups afterward — for requiring prospective members or leaders to align with their beliefs.

“The exclusion of religious viewpoints from colleges and universities risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the nation’s intellectual life, according to the federal government’s statement justifying its interest in the case that BLinC filed against the UI in 2017.

The department articulated a three-pronged argument for why the university defied the Constitution when it stripped BLinC of its campus affiliation.

First, according to the Justice Department, the UI violated BLinC’s right to “expressive association, which forbids exclusion of groups on the grounds that officials find their views abhorrent.” Second, the UI violated the “fundamental free-speech principle” preventing discrimination based on differing viewpoints when it barred BLinC based on its views on sexuality. Lastly, the government said the UI rebuffed BLinC’s rights under the “Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by discriminating against its religious beliefs.”

“As the Department of Justice has repeatedly emphasized over the last two years, public universities are legally required to protect the First Amendment rights of students,” Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio said in a statement. “Unfortunately, too many schools are ignoring their legal obligations — and they are also undermining the very purpose of a university education, which is to advance learning through a free and robust exchange of ideas.”

The uproar involving BLinC began in fall 2017 when it denied a gay member access to a leadership post. That student complained to the university and the UI booted BLinC for violating its human rights policy.


But a federal judge, who has not yet ruled on the merits of the case, found the UI unequally enforced its human rights policy — many other student groups that weren’t punished have similar requirements. The judge ordered the UI to temporarily allow BLinC back on campus.

In response, the university over the summer reviewed 500-plus student group constitutions and found 356 were non-compliant. By the time a UI-imposed deadline for coming into compliance arrived, nearly 40 student groups were automatically deregistered for not doing so. Many others were left in limbo.

The total included other faith-based groups such as the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, which has been on campus for 25 years and always has required leaders to share its Christian faith.

InterVarsity in August sued the UI for kicking it off campus. The university, in response to a restraining order threat, agreed to temporarily reinstate deregistered groups with religious affiliations while the court cases proceed.

In the months since, both BLinC and InterVarsity have asked a judge to grant them summary judgment, which would settle the cases in their favor.

But UI attorneys argue a court should reject the requests because legal rules allow for such only if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact.”

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