ST. LOUIS (CN) — A Christian student group fought Tuesday before the Eighth Circuit to hold three University of Iowa officials individually liable for punishing the group after it had denied a leadership position to a gay student.
Business Leaders in Christ brought its suit in Davenport, Iowa, when the university stripped the organization of campus privileges for violating the school’s human rights code.
They seek a partial reversal now after U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose ruled in 2019 that three officials had immunity while the University of Iowa otherwise violated the group’s free-speech and free exercise of religion.
“The defendants don’t deserve qualified immunity,” Eric Baxter, senior legal counsel for the Becket Fund, said Tuesday, arguing before a three-judge panel in St. Louis. “They violated clearly established law on freedom of association.” Becket, a public-interest law firm focused on free expression of religious traditions, has represented the student group in the case.
Iowa Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson urged the judges to affirm.
“It is noteworthy that we had a hard-fought battle below, and we only have the qualified immunity question,” Thompson said.
Noting that clear court precedent had been lacking, Thompson insisted that “the administration really wrestled” with how to deal with the student group.
“That is the definition of qualified immunity.”
BLinC was created in 2014 by students in UI’s College of Business, and that fall it was officially recognized as a registered student organization, thus acquiring campus privileges such as access to school funding and facilities.
After the group denied a leadership post to a gay man, UI revoked that registration.
Leaders of the group say their mission was to help “seekers of Christ” learn “how to continually keep Christ first in the fast-paced business world.” The group believes homosexual relationships are “outside of God’s design” and that “every person should embrace, not reject, their God-given sex.” It asserts that it was punished for refusing to amend its religious beliefs to accept sexual conduct that runs contrary to its mission.
In ruling for the plaintiffs, Judge Rose found the university’s human rights policy reasonable and viewpoint neutral as written, though not applied equally based on viewpoints. Citing a student group called Love Works, which supports gay rights, Rose wrote: “The university allows Love Works to limit leadership to individuals who share its religious beliefs on homosexuality. But BLinC may not.”
“That is viewpoint discrimination,” she wrote.
BLinC sought to hold three individual officials — the dean, the assistant dean and the executive director of the Iowa Memorial Union — personally liable, but Rose granted them immunity at summary judgment.
“This is a close call,” Rose wrote. “The Supreme Court’s recent holdings on qualified immunity signal that the defense should only be denied in the absence of such uncertainty.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, the Eighth Circuit focused largely on that precedent.
Chief Judge Lavinski Smith of Arkansas asked how Supreme Court cases regarding qualified immunity applied to law enforcement, where quick decisions have to be made, differ from the realm of higher education. “Does that make a difference?” Smith asked.
Thompson said there are objective standards for different situations. But, he said, “to subject university officials to personal liability requires fact-specific circumstances.”
After the argument, Baxter said in an interview with Courthouse News that “the Eighth Circuit is very protective of qualified immunity,” especially where police officers have to make snap decisions.
“I think they got that this is not one of those cases,” Baxter added.
In seeking only nominal damages of $1, Baxter noted that the group seeks to “put other university officials on notice that they have to treat all university groups the same.”
The Iowa Attorney General’s office declined to comment Tuesday.
In a brief filed with the Eighth Circuit, BLinC argued that losing its appeal “would mean that public universities could act with impunity to single out religious speech for suppression at least one more time.”
The response brief from the Iowa attorney general meanwhile accused that BLinC of “ignor[ing] decades of Supreme Court precedent admonishing lower courts that the particular factual circumstances of each case must be considered in analyzing whether the law was clearly established at the time of the alleged constitutional violations.”