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Appeals Court Rules University of Iowa Discriminated against Christian Student Group

Crystal A. Dixon | Contributor | Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Appeals Court Rules University of Iowa Discriminated against Christian Student Group

Appeals Court Rules University of Iowa Discriminated against Christian Student Group

The University of Iowa can be directly held responsible for ousting a Christian student group off the campus because of its faith, according to a Monday ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

According to the Des Moines Register, yesterday’s ruling comes a few years after the Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) student club took legal action against the university for infringing on their first amendment rights by deregistering the group for prohibiting a gay student member from holding a position of leadership with the club.

The University ousted BLinC, stating their qualifications for leadership positions in their group was discriminatory; however, other student organizations across campus were permitted to pen their own guidelines without the authority of the university.

In 2018, a District Court  gave the University of Iowa “qualified immunity”, ruling the school could not be held responsible because “the law was not clearly established.” However, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals opposed the decision on Monday, concurring the law was clear on BLinC’s allegations on free-association and free-speech, but not free-exercise. Therefore, the Court of Appeals asserts the University of Iowa is accountable for two of the three claims.

Judge Jonathan A. Kobes, argued in a separate statement that the law of free exercise was also established. “I write separately because I think the law is clearly established on its free exercise claim, too,” Kobes wrote. “The individual defendants’ choice to deny BLinC an exemption from the Human Rights Policy — while allowing exemptions for other secular and religious groups (that they approve of) — shows that they sought to advance their interests only against specific religious conduct.”

Kobes also asserted that BLinC should have been granted the same allowances given to other student groups, including secular ones allowed to restrict governance positions to those whose views align with that of the group, and/or follow the group’s guidelines regarding gender or ethnicity.

“The purpose of qualified immunity is to shield good-faith actors who make mistaken judgments about unresolved issues of law, and it protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,’” which Kobes argued describes the UI administrators who “had more than ‘fair warning’ that their conduct was unconstitutional.”

“The law is clear: state organizations may not target religious groups for differential treatment or withhold an otherwise available benefit solely because they are religious,” he wrote. “That is what happened here. The individual defendants may pick their poison: they are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution. Either way, they should not get qualified immunity.”

In the meantime, deliberations about free speech throughout the state’s public university system are dominating Iowa’s state legislative assemblies. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton said, this is unacceptable. It needs to stop. And it will stop.”

According to The Gazette, the University of Iowa issued a statement that “is currently reviewing the decision and its options.”

“This is not a big money case,” Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, representing BLinC told The Gazette.

“What was at issue was making sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “That’s what makes the ruling today so significant — is that it sends a message. Not only that a constitutional violation occurred but that it’s clearly established that this kind of selective enforcement violates the First Amendment.”

That, Blomberg said, is precedent-setting.

“That’s going to be very important for religious student groups across the country, and at the University of Iowa,” he said.

Photo courtesy: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

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