DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — After losing two lawsuits to Christian student groups at the University of Iowa, school administrators now face the prospect of paying damages to the plaintiffs out of their own pockets.
A federal judge in Des Moines ruled Friday that the university violated a Christian graduate student organization’s constitutional rights of free speech and free exercise of religion by revoking the group’s status as a registered student organization because it requires its leaders to abide by its religious beliefs.
Friday’s ruling for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and Intervarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship was the second victory for the religious liberty law firm Becket, which represented both student groups, following a Feb. 7 ruling by U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose that the Iowa City-based university violated another Christian student organization’s free speech and free exercise rights by stripping its campus privileges after it refused to appoint a gay male to a leadership position.
The university revoked the campus privileges of a business college group called Business Leaders in Christ,or BLiNC, saying the group’s requirement that leaders agree to abide by its beliefs based on its strict interpretation of the Bible is discriminatory. The group denied an officer position to a member who refused to go along with its position on gay rights.
Both lawsuits raised the same issues after the university stripped the campus groups – first BLiNC and later InterVarsity – of their privileges as registered student organizations, thus cutting off access to university funding, office space and other privileges.
The university based its decision to revoke the student groups’ status on its human rights policy, which forbids discrimination on the basis of race, sex and religion, among other things.
Judge Rose, a Barack Obama appointee, ruled in the first suit that while the human rights policy is valid, it is selectively enforced because exemptions are granted for fraternities and sororities, among other groups on campus.
Rose expressed exasperation in Friday’s 52-page ruling that the university did not retreat from revoking InterVarsity’s status in light of her preliminary injunction issued in January finding that the university had likely violated the constitutional rights of BLinC.
“In its January 2018 preliminary injunction order in the BLinC case, the court found the university likely violated a student group’s free speech rights by selectively enforcing the human rights policy. The court would never have expected the university to respond to that order by homing in on religious groups’ compliance with the policy while at the same time carving out explicit exemptions for other groups,” she wrote. “But here we are.”
Although the court granted the individual defendants qualified immunity in the BLinC decision, which relieved them of liability, she held otherwise in Friday’s decision with respect to three University of Iowa administrators directly involved in the decision to revoke InterVarsity’s campus privileges.
Those administrators – and others not named in the second lawsuit – “proceeded to broaden enforcement of the human rights policy in the name of uniformity . . . while at the same time continuing to allow some groups to operate in violation of the policy and formalizing an exemption for fraternities and sororities,” Rose wrote. “The court does not know how a reasonable person could have concluded this was acceptable, as it plainly constitutes the same selective application of the human rights policy that the court found constitutionally infirm in the preliminary injunction order.”
The amount of damages owed to the InterVarsity plaintiffs will be determined in a later hearing by the court, as well as whether University President Bruce Harreld is also personally liable.
In a statement released Monday, the university said it has revised its policy on campus student groups in response to the court action and recent legislation enacted by state lawmakers.
“Earlier this year, the University of Iowa revised its student organization policy to permit student organizations to require their leaders ‘to agree to and support’ the organization’s beliefs. With this change, student organizations such as InterVarsity have been participating in campus life this fall,” the school said.
The statement continued, “The University of Iowa has always respected the right of students, faculty, and staff to practice the religion of their choice. The case involving Business Leaders in Christ and later InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and Intervarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship presented a difficult issue for a public university as administrators tried to balance the rights of all individuals on campus. University administrators acted in good faith as they attempted to navigate the complicated interplay between the First and Fourteenth Amendments and the direct conflict with the Iowa Civil Rights Act.”