University accused of creating ‘watch list’ for faith groups, denies clubs are on probation

School mascot Herky the Hawk stands in front of the Old Capitol Museum at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, Iowa, U.S. May 22, 2016.
School mascot Herky the Hawk stands in front of the Old Capitol Museum at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, Iowa, U.S. May 22, 2016. | (Photo: REUTERS/Koh Gui Qing)

A conservative religious freedom law group claims that the University of Iowa has created a “watch list” highlighting religious student groups that have what the school claims are discriminatory leadership policies.

Becket, a non-profit legal group that works to defend First Amendment rights, announced in a press release Tuesday that the University of Iowa admitted in court last Friday that it has a list in which over 30 religious student groups are singled out for leadership policies that are said to violate the school’s human rights code and the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

The university’s human rights policy bars discrimination on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender among other identifiers.

Becket explains that the school’s disclosure was made in response to a federal court’s demand that the university identifies all of the student groups that it de-registered last year because of their leadership policies.  

In the case of Christian groups that were de-registered, they hold policies that require leaders in the group to be Christian and affirm and live in accordance with the groups’ statements of faith.

Student groups of other faiths and even some secular groups with certain leadership criteria were also impacted.

The issue was driven to the forefront of the university’s attention when a gay student was denied a leadership position in the group Business Leaders in Christ after he failed to accept the group’s statement of faith opposing homosexuality.

After being de-recognized as an official student group, Business Leaders in Christ filed a lawsuit claiming that the policy had been unfairly applied and was not being applied evenly to other campus groups, including other religious student groups.  

After de-recognizing other student groups with similar policies, those students groups were temporarily reinstated last August after InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship threatened to file its own lawsuit. The groups are temporarily reinstated until litigation involving these matters are settled.

According to Becket, the religious groups listed on what it calls a “watch list” are placed on “probationary status.” However, the university denies that the groups are in “probationary status” and stresses that the groups are still granted full access as registered groups.

The list in question technically lists all 579 registered student groups at the university, however, Becket objects to the fact that the only groups highlighted in blue on the list are “Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and other religious student clubs.”

The list also indicates whether or not such groups are in compliance with the university human rights policy. As in the case of the groups highlighted in blue, the list indicates that the university has stopped its review of those organizations policies pending litigation.

Becket, which represents Business Leaders in Christ and InterVarsity, claims that the “watch list” is the “latest evidence confirming that the university has been singling out religious groups and discriminating against them.”

“For a public institution to single out religious student groups and threaten their expulsion is textbook Big Brother,” Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement.

“The university’s blatant double-standard and its desire to target and track religious groups in the name of ‘nondiscrimination,’ while ignoring dozens of other bigger groups who engage in more so-called ‘discrimination,’ is doublethink that would make the Ministry of Truth blush.”

However, the university claims that Baxter has “blatantly misrepresented the facts and documentation submitted to the court by the University of Iowa.”

“All religious organizations remain in registered status while the court decides, and ultimately directs, the university on how it should address the conflict that currently exists between the First Amendment and the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” the university's statement shared with The Christian Post reads.

“The university agreed with counsel for BLinC and InterVarsity to place the review of religious organization constitutions on hold once the InterVarsity lawsuit was filed against the university with the understanding that plaintiffs’ counsel would not file any further lawsuits pertaining to this issue pending the decision by the court in BLinC.”

The university maintains that the registered religious and faith-based student groups continue to have “full access to all benefits, funding, facilities, and resources that are offered to all other student organizations on campus.”

“Therefore, the university has not placed any religious student organization on ‘probationary status’ as insinuated by BLinC’s legal counsel,” the statement assures.

The university’s statement concluded that “the University of Iowa does not tolerate discrimination of any kind in accordance with federal and state law.”

Becket Media Relations Manager Ryan Colby hit back at the university’s response.

"The document filed by the university on Friday only underscores its discrimination," Colby told Fox News in a statement. "It shows that if the university wins, religious organizations will be subject to deregistration for requiring their leaders to be [adherents]. It also shows that all other organizations — dozens of which screen their leaders based on sex or other categories [protected by] the Human Rights Policy — are not being subjected to any review, and will not be even after the lawsuits are over. If that is not religious discrimination, we eagerly await for the university to tell us what it is. Indeed, two years already, and still waiting."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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