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BLinC sued The University of Iowa last month, claiming its registration as an on-campus student organization was revoked for denying a leadership post to a gay man, and refusing to amend its religious beliefs to accept “sexual conduct” that runs contrary to its mission.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.