DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – A federal judge ruled late Wednesday that the University of Iowa violated a Christian student organization’s rights to free speech and free exercise of religion by stripping the group’s campus privileges after it refused to elect a gay man to a leadership position.
U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose ruled in favor of Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC, on summary judgment, saying the university discriminated against the group based on its viewpoint by not equally enforcing its human rights policy for student organizations on campus.
The policy forbids student organizations from treating members differently base on “race, creed, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, disability, genetic information, status as a U.S. veteran, service in the U.S. military, sexual orientation, gender identity, associational preferences, or any other classification that deprives the person of consideration as an individual, and that equal opportunity and access to facilities shall be available to all.”
Judge Rose found that policy is reasonable and viewpoint neutral as written, but it has not been applied equally based on various student groups’ viewpoints.
BLinC was “prevented from expressing its viewpoints on protected characteristics” while other student groups were allowed to espouse different viewpoints, Judge Rose wrote in a 37-page order.
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.
The University of Iowa, represented by Assistant Attorney General George Carroll, argued that the university grants human rights policy exceptions to groups that “support the university’s educational mission” or its “educational and social purposes.”
But, “in declining to grant BLinC an exception for its sincerely held religious beliefs, the university has made a value judgment that BLinC’s beliefs do not support those purposes,” Rose wrote.
The Iowa attorney general’s office referred requests for comment to the university, which issued a brief statement Thursday saying, “We are reviewing the ruling and will follow the court order.”
BLinC praised the decision in a statement released Wednesday.
“We are grateful the court protected our rights today — to let us have the same rights as all student groups to express our viewpoints freely on campus and to be who we are,” said BLinC member Jake Estell. “This victory reinforces the commonsense idea that universities can’t target religious student groups for being religious.”
“The university wanted a license to discriminate, and Judge Rose said no way,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which represents BLinC. “This ruling is a win for basic fairness, but it is also an eloquent plea for civility in how governments treat Americans in all their diversity. As a governmental body bound by the First Amendment, the university should have never tried to get into the game of playing favorites in the first place, and it is high time for it to stop now.”
BLinC was created in 2014 by students in the University of Iowa’s Tippee College of Business, and it was officially recognized as a registered student organization that fall, which granted it certain campus privileges, such as access to university funding and facilities.
BLinC leaders say the group was founded as a religious organization 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.”
The university revoked the group’s registration when BLinC denied a leadership post to a gay man and refused the university’s mandate that it amend its religious beliefs to accept sexual conduct that runs contrary to its mission.
In 2017, the organization filed a federal lawsuit claiming the university violated its First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expressive association, freedom of assembly, and free exercise of religion.
In response, the university last year launched a review of all student groups, which led to more than 30 groups being de-registered. That promoted a related lawsuit, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA v. University of Iowa, which is scheduled for trial in 2020.
In her order issued Wednesday, Judge Rose said BLinC is entitled to a permanent injunction that prohibits the university from enforcing the human rights policy against it based on the content of the group’s statement of faith and leadership selection policies.
Separately, Rose granted a motion for partial summary judgment by three individual university defendants named in the suit based on qualified privilege as applied to any money damages sought by BLinC.
Rose concluded her order by noting how her decision might be misperceived.
“The court suspects that some observers will portray this case as a fundamental conflict between nondiscrimination laws and religious liberty. Appealing as that may be, it overinflates the issues before the court. The human rights policy promotes valuable goals for both the university and society at large,” the judge wrote.
She continued, “There is no fault to be found with the policy itself. But the constitution does not tolerate the way defendants chose to enforce the human rights policy. Particularly when free speech is involved, the uneven application of any policy risks the most exacting standard of judicial scrutiny, which defendants have failed to withstand.”