University can't ban Christian group for requiring that its leaders be Christian, court rules

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 federal judge ruled Wednesday that the University of Iowa can’t selectively enforce its non-discrimination policy on a Christian student group that requires that its leaders abide by a Christian statement of faith.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie M. Rose issued an injunction barring the university from enforcing its human rights policy against student group Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) so long as the school continues to allow other registered student organizations to have leadership requirements that also are deemed to violate the university’s policy.

While the order prevents the school from unevenly enforcing the discrimination policy on the Christian group, the court order affirms that there is “no fault to be found with the policy itself” because it “promotes valuable goals for both the University and society at large.”

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“But the Constitution does not tolerate the way Defendants chose to enforce the Human Rights Policy,” Rose’s ruling explains. “Particularly when free speech is involved, the uneven application of any policy risks the most exacting standard of judicial scrutiny, which Defendants have failed to withstand.”

BLinC filed a lawsuit against the university in 2017 after it was kicked off campus because the organization has a policy that requires that its leaders be Christian and agree to a set of beliefs laid out in a statement of faith. The group was de-registered only after a gay student was barred from leadership because BLinC’s statement of faith opposes homosexuality.

The university has claimed that the organization’s policy not only violates its human rights policy but also violates the Iowa Civil Rights Act. But at the time that BLinC was de-registered as a campus student group, there were other religious and non-religious student groups on campus that also had selective requirements for their leaders.

In January 2018, Rose ruled that the school had to temporarily reinstate BLinC on grounds that the university was not “consistently and equally” applying its policy.

Following the ruling, the school warned other student groups with policies that don’t comply with the school’s discrimination code protecting on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, sex and religion that they could no longer require their leaders to uphold a certain faith or ideology.

About 40 student groups that did not change their policies were de-recognized by the school last year. The groups that were de-recognized were politically and religiously diverse.

Those groups were later temporarily re-recognized by the university pending litigation after InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship also filed a lawsuit.

However, the policy still wasn’t being evenly applied to other student organizations like fraternities, sororities and sports clubs.

Following the court’s demand, the university identified 32 religious organizations that could be at risk of being de-recognized if the university had won the litigation.

“The judge made clear to the university that they can’t engage in the kind of discrimination that they have been engaged in,” said attorney Eric Baxter of the legal nonprofit Becket, which represents both Christian groups in their cases against the University of Iowa.

“She really made a ruling that should have an impact across the country for university officials who think it is OK to discriminate against religious groups because of their beliefs.”

Baxter told The Christian Post that while Wednesday’s ruling only applied to BLinC, he expects Rose to issue a similar ruling in the InterVarsity case.

“I anticipate that all of these organizations will have full status on campus again and the university will stop pressuring them because they want their leaders to be religious also,” Baxter contended.

No hearing has yet been set in the InterVarsity case.

Considering that Rose’s ruling affirms the university’s human rights policy and just finds concern with the university’s uneven application of the policy, Baxter said that Becket is prepared to push back should the university decide to apply its human rights policy evenly to all student groups.

However, he doesn’t foresee that happening.

“It is very unlikely because the university would have to tell fraternities and sororities that they have to integrate and sports clubs would have to integrate,” Baxter said. “Military support groups will have to allow people who do not support the military or disagree with the military to be leaders. It is very unlikely to happen. If it did happen, we would still challenge that decision.”

University spokesperson Jeneane Beck told The Gazette that the university is "reviewing the ruling and will follow the court order."

All student groups previously de-recognized by the university are currently enjoying “full access to all benefits, funding, facilities, and resources that are offered to all other student organizations on campus,” the university said in a statement Wednesday.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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