Iowa College Officials Denied Immunity in Religious Freedom Case

The district court shouldn’t have granted administrators qualified immunity for an Iowa university’s violation of a religious student group’s constitutional rights, an appeals panel found.

Macbride Hall at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. (Photo by David Mark from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — University of Iowa administrators who denied official recognition to a Christian organization of business students may be held individually liable for violating the First Amendment rights of the students, the Eighth Circuit ruled Monday.

The St. Louis-based appeals court reversed a trial court ruling that said the university administrators enjoyed qualified immunity, which is a judicially created shield that protects public officials from individual liability who violate constitutional rights.

A federal trial judge in Des Moines ruled in 2019 that the Iowa City-based university violated the free-speech, free-association and free-exercise rights of the student group Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) under the First Amendment when it stripped the group’s status as a recognized student organization because it refused to allow a gay male student to be a member of its board. The action denied the group access to university funding and campus resources.

The university did not appeal the district court ruling on the merits, but BLinC appealed to the Eighth Circuit over the trial court’s decision granting the individual defendants qualified immunity for money damages. U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose, a Barack Obama appointee, ruled that the named university administrators should have immunity, saying the constitutional law on this issues in the case was not clearly established.

A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit disagreed Monday, at least in part. The majority denied qualified immunity on the questions of free speech and free association but granted it on the issue of free exercise of religion.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Lavenski Smith of Arkansas, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote for the majority, “We are satisfied that Supreme Court precedent, existing Eighth Circuit precedent, and ‘a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority,’ ‘squarely govern[ed] [the individual defendants’] conduct in the specific circumstances at issue.’ As a result, we hold that the district court erroneously granted the individual defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity on BLinC’s free-speech and expressive-association claims.”

The majority, however, said that “the law was not clearly established at the time that the individual defendants’ conduct violated BLinC’s free-exercise rights.” Thus, the majority held that the district court did not err in granting qualified immunity to them on the student group’s free-exercise claim.

Smith’s opinion was joined in full by U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton, another George W. Bush appointee.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jonathan Kobes, a Donald Trump appointee, filed a separate opinion concurring with the majority in reversing the district court on two questions but dissenting on qualified immunity for the free-exercise claim.

“The law is clear: state organizations may not target religious groups for differential treatment or withhold an otherwise available benefit solely because they are religious,” Kobes wrote. “That is what happened here. The individual defendants may pick their poison: they are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution. Either way, they should not get qualified immunity.”

BLinC’s attorney Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel of Becket Law, a nonprofit public-interest law firm specializing in religious freedom issues, said in a statement Monday that the group was pleased with the decision. He noted that the university had sought to use its nondiscrimination policy as a reason for its action against BLinC.

“It’s deeply ironic that school officials tried using the university’s nondiscrimination policy to discriminate against religion,” Baxter said. “They knew this was wrong, yet did it anyway. We’re pleased the court has recognized that such blatant religious discrimination brings personal consequences.”

A University of Iowa spokesperson said, “The university is currently reviewing the decision and its options.”

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