DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — A federal judge Tuesday restored for 90 days the registration of a campus Christian organization the University of Iowa had “de-registered” for violating its policies on discrimination and human rights, by barring a gay student from office.
The University of Iowa did not bar Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) from campus, but said it would not have privileges of a registered student organization, which may include access to university funding and facilities.
The school acted after Marcus Miller filed a formal complaint, saying BLinC had denied him an officer position because he is “openly gay.”
That violated the university’s human rights policy that bars discrimination against students on the basis of gender identity, the university said.
BLinC sued the university in December, claiming its deregistration violated the First Amendment.
BLinC’s lead attorney Eric Baxter, with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday the student group was pleased with the injunction ruling.
“They are very happy that the court recognized the university targeted them for their religious beliefs,” he said.
Baxter said he expects the case to proceed to trial on the merits, but that depends on how the university responds to the injunction. If it were to revise the way it enforces its human rights policy in light of the ruling, he said, “we would welcome that.” That would mean the university making a distinction between students’ protected-class status and their beliefs.
Iowa’s Assistant Attorney General George Carroll, representing the university, declined to comment.
U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose on Tuesday granted BLinc a temporary injunction. She found that though the university’s human rights policy is reasonable and viewpoint-neutral, “the Court must conclude on the current record that BLinC has shown that the university does not consistently and equally apply its human rights policy.”
Rose found that the university created a “limited public forum” by granting student groups certain benefits so long as they abide by the university’s conditions.
“Because the university’s student organization registration program is a limited public forum,” she wrote, “the University’s decision to revoke BLinC’s registration is permissible if the university’s requirement of compliance with the human rights policy is reasonable in light of the purpose of the forum and viewpoint neutral.”
Rose concluded that the human rights policy is reasonable. “The University created a forum for like-minded students to engage with one another and develop their leadership skills with the overall purpose of enhancing students’ educational experiences,” Rose wrote. “It also clearly wanted to ensure that every student received individual consideration from the organizations he or she sought to join. Thus, the requirement that student organizations comply with the Human Rights Policy to receive the benefits of registration is reasonable in light of the forum’s purpose.”
But she found that the policy is not consistently applied, citing evidence that several other registered campus organizations “are permitted to organize around their missions and beliefs,” while BLinC is not.
The judge cited Imam Mahdi, for example, a registered student organization of Muslim students that limits its membership to Shi’a Muslims. “The University does not appear to have taken any action with respect to Imam Mahdi, despite its clear violation of the University’s Human Rights Policy,” Rose found.
In light of this selective enforcement, Rose said, “BLinC has established the requisite fair chance of prevailing on the merits of its claims under the Free Speech Clause” of the First Amendment.
After 90 days, “BLinC may seek further action as necessary, and defendants may respond by detailing any changes to the enforcement of its human rights policy to registered student organizations.”