DAVENPORT, Iowa (CN) – In a case of religious freedom versus gay rights, a Christian student group argued before a federal judge Thursday that it should not have been booted from The University of Iowa campus for denying a gay member a leadership position.
During a Thursday morning hearing at the federal courthouse in downtown Davenport, Iowa, attorney Eric Baxter of the Washington, D.C.-based religious advocacy firm The Becket Fund asked U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose for an order enjoining the university from revoking the campus registration of Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC.
Based on questions from Judge Rose, however, a final ruling on the merits of the case could have the effect of forcing the university to examine the membership rules of all roughly 500 student groups on its Iowa City campus to determine whether they discriminate based on race, religion and sex.
BLinC sued The University of Iowa last month, claiming its registration as an on-campus student organization was revoked for denying a leadership post to a gay man, and refusing to amend its religious beliefs to accept “sexual conduct” that runs contrary to its mission.
The conservative Christian student group acknowledges that it denied its member Marcus Miller a leadership role in 2016 after he said he intended to pursue same-sex relationships. But it denies that it did so because of his sexual orientation.
It says it welcomes gay members but it decided that Miller was ineligible to become a leader because he was pursuing relationships “inconsistent” with the group’s beliefs on sexual conduct.
The University of Iowa, represented in the case by Assistant Attorney General George Carroll, has argued that BLinC’s action violated the university’s human rights policy that bars discrimination against students on the basis of gender identity.
But the case represents a conflict between gay rights and religious freedom, as BLinC leaders argue that the university’s decision to strip its registration is contrary to its own policy that forbids discrimination against students on the basis of religion.
In his argument on behalf of the university Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Carroll said BLinC was not “singled out” for deregistration and was targeted only after a formal complaint had been filed.
“Does a complaint have to be filed for the university to enforce its policy?” Judge Rose asked.
Carroll replied there is no audit procedure, but Rose pointed out that BLinC, in a filing two and a half months ago, cited an Islamic student organization as an example of a campus group that limits membership based on religion beliefs.
Asked by Rose if that violates the university’s nondiscrimination policy, Carroll conceded that “arguably, that is true,” but he said there has been no formal complaint against the Islamic group.
Rose said BLinC made the university aware of the discrepancy months ago.
“You haven’t taken any action in two and a half months to be sure that group” is not violating the university’s nondiscrimination policy, she said. “How do you respond to the plaintiffs’ concern that you have singled them out?”
Carroll replied that The University of Iowa may have to assess whether other student groups comply with its nondiscrimination policy.
Rose said neither she nor the Christian student group are asking the university to investigate all 500 student groups, but said the university has an interest in assuring there is no discrimination, especially against constitutionally protected classes, and its failure to follow up in the case of the Islamic organization raises the question of selective enforcement.
In its motion for a preliminary injunction, BLinC says it deregistration means it will not be able to participate in the Jan. 24-25 campus recruitment fair, where recognized student groups are able to pitch membership to University of Iowa students.
A ruling on the injunction request is expected sometime next week, and BLinC’s attorney, Baxter, said after Thursday’s hearing he expects a decision favorable to his clients based on Judge Rose’s questions.
Carroll declined to comment after the hearing.
The university, in a brief opposing the injunction, argues that its human rights policy is “content and subject matter neutral” and that it “has the right to recognize groups only if they abide by its policies.”
BLinC was formed by students in The University of Iowa’s business college in 2014, according to its Dec. 11 complaint, “to create a community of followers of Christ . . . to share and gain wisdom on how to practice business that is both Biblical and founded on God’s truth.”
According to the complaint, Miller – the student who said he was denied an opportunity to serve as the group’s vice president because of his sexual orientation – told a BLinC officer he did not intend to follow the group’s Christian beliefs on sexual conduct and that he intended to pursue same-sex relationships.
BLinC’s statement of faith says: “We believe God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and a wife in the lifelong covenant of marriage. Every other sexual relationship beyond this is outside of God’s design and is not in keeping with God’s original plan for humanity. We believe that every person should embrace, not reject, their God-given sex.”
The university said in its court brief that it “has a right and obligation to ensure an open and non-discriminatory environment on campus,” and the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals, not groups.
The University of Iowa argues that BLinC’s policy regarding eligibility of officers violates the campus policy of treating no person differently based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The argument the state cannot interfere with the leadership choices or tenets of BLinC misses the mark,” the brief states. “BLinC has made a voluntary choice to accept state funding and with that choice come restrictions.”
A friend-of-the-court brief was also filed in the case by five campus groups, representing Jewish and Christian faiths, in support of BLinC.
Iowa State University, the University of Iowa’s sister institution in Ames, reached a settlement last week with lawyers representing campus chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, which brought a First Amendment case based on Iowa State’s refusal to allow the university’s logo and mascot on the pro-pot group’s T-shirts.
The settlement will cost Iowa State $343,000 in appellate attorney fees. Trial-level fees have yet to be determined by a federal judge.