IOWA CITY — More than a year after a faith-based student group sued the University of Iowa for stripping its campus affiliation based on controversial leadership requirements, the two sides are set to face off next week in U.S. District Court over sticking points in advance of a jury trial in March.
The case involving Business Leaders in Christ — a student group known as BLinC, founded in the Tippie College of Business in 2014 — prompted an expansive university review of its student organizations; deregistration of dozens more groups; and a second lawsuit against the UI over how it handled a faith-based group.
The student groups — represented by the high-profile Becket Fund for Religious Liberty from Washington, D. C.— have attracted the eye of the U.S. Justice Department, which recently filed court documents asserting its opinion that the UI violated the Constitution by deregistering faith-based groups.
“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 Justice Department statement telling its interest in the case BLinC filed in 2017.
In advance of a scheduled March 4 jury trial, a judge has invited the two sides next Wednesday to the federal courthouse in Des Moines. BLinC attorneys say they will ask there “for permanent protection from the university’s religious discrimination.”
The UI first deregistered BLinC in November 2017 after the group barred an openly gay member from becoming a leader of the student group. The university said BLinC’s requirement that its leaders align with its beliefs violates a UI human rights policy mandating student organization membership be open regardless of race, creed, color, religion or other protected identity.
When BLinC pointed out that other UI student groups boast similar requirements without being punished — including Imam Madhi, which requires its leaders be Shia Muslims — a judge ordered the university to temporarily allow BLinC back on campus while the case plays out.
The UI then launched an expansive review of its 513 registered student organizations, finding — in line with BLinC’s accusations — that 356 groups were non-compliant with its human rights policy. Administrators gave the groups a deadline to change their constitutions or be booted off campus.
The UI ultimately rejected 38, eight of which had religious roots.
Among those deregistered was the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, which joined the legal fray in August by suing on similar grounds as BLinC.
In that case, InterVarsity recently asked a judge to rule pre-emptively in favor of its discrimination claims — in advance of a trial set for February 2020. But the UI pushed back against the group’s charges.
“InterVarsity has done its best to frame the university’s actions as an attack on ‘disfavored religious groups,’” according to court documents filed last week on behalf of the UI. “While InterVarsity and seven other religious groups were deregistered for failing to include the full and complete human rights policy in their (student org) constitutions, so were 30 other groups which are not religiously affiliated.”
The UI argument illustrates the conflicting discrimination accusations and perceived attacks.
“This is not a case about discrimination against InterVarsity and other religious groups by a public university, but rather, involves an attack on the university by a religious group, which wishes to continue to receive state funding and resources while excluding University of Iowa students from its leadership team on the basis of religion,” the UI argued.
Even though the InterVarsity chapter in dispute has been on the UI campus for a quarter century without a problem, the UI in its court filings argued that “InterVarsity’s vision for its group membership and leadership is not compatible with the vision set forth by the university when it created its limited public forum for student speech.”
In response, attorneys for InterVarsity and BLinC have cited UI opinions from 15 years ago holding that, indeed, faith-based student groups could enforce ideological requirements.
The UI was “wrong to deregister InterVarsity along with Sikh, Muslim, Latter-day Saint, and Protestant groups, and still is wrong to subject them to a discriminatory rule against religious leadership selection,” according to documents filed Tuesday. “The university knows this, which is why its officials began warning students a decade ago that using university power to engage in such discrimination would expose them to personal liability. The university was right then and wrong now.”
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