DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – Lawyers for a Christian student group at the University of Iowa urged a federal judge Friday to find that the college unfairly stripped its status as registered student organization after the group denied a gay member a leadership position.
In a case of religious freedom versus gay rights, the campus organization Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC, wants a ruling in its favor in its lawsuit against the university without going to trial, while lawyers for the university asked the court to try the case but dismiss claims against individually named defendants.
U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose took the parties’ dueling motions under advisement and said she would rule later.
BLinC sued the university in December 2017, claiming its registration as an on-campus student organization was revoked by the University of Iowa for denying a leadership post to a gay man and refusing to amend its stated religious beliefs to accept “sexual conduct” that runs contrary to its mission.
The university has argued that BLinC’s action violated a human rights policy that bars discrimination against students on the basis of gender identity.
BLinC’s lead attorney Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket in Washington, D.C., argued for summary judgment Friday, telling Judge Rose that “the university has admitted everything this court needs to find violations of free association, free exercise and free speech.”
Baxter argued that the university targeted BLinC because of its religious viewpoint on marriage and sexuality and that, by making categorical exemptions for fraternal sports organizations, it has not equally enforced its non-discrimination policy.
Assistant Attorney General George Carroll, representing the University of Iowa, said Friday the court should hold a trial for BLinC’s suit because “fact disputes remain” and “the court needs to hear all the evidence.”
The state, however, filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the claims against the three named University of Iowa officials, saying the individual defendants have qualified immunity and cannot be held liable if the constitutional right at issue was not “clearly established.”
Carroll argued Friday that while the institution may remain the sole named defendant, he urged the judge to dismiss BLinC’s claims against the three officials because the case involves complex constitutional issues in which the courts have issued conflicting decisions.
“A reasonable public official could say, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I shouldn’t be held personally responsible,’” Carroll said.
Judge Rose raised questions about whether BLinC still has standing in the suit because it is not clear it has at least five active members – the minimum number required by the university for a group to be recognized as a registered student organization.
She directed the defendants to submit the names, under seal, of all student members of BLinC and the dates they joined to determine whether the group has standing.
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.
In January 2018, Judge Rose restored BLinC’s registration for 90 days. She has since extended the temporary injunction until a judgment is rendered in the case.
The University of Iowa did not bar BLinC from campus, but said it would not have the privileges of a registered student organization, which may include access to university funding and facilities.
The U.S. Justice Department filed a brief in the case in support of BLinC.
The filing submitted Jan. 15 by Marc Krickbaum, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, and Eric W. Treene, special counsel in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, urged the court to grant summary judgment and said the university violated the student group’s free association, speech and exercise rights under the First Amendment.
“The United States is resolutely committed to protecting First Amendment freedoms and to ensuring, as Congress has directed, that public ‘institutions of higher education . . . facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas,’” the brief states. “In the United States’ view, the court should grant summary judgment for BLinC because the university’s deregistration of BLinC ‘without justification’ violated BLinC’s constitutional rights.”