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

by Samuel Smith, Christian Post Contributor |
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."

"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.

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