32 Religious Groups on Probation for Alleged Discrimination at University of Iowa

Legal counsel for students: 'This is a case of blatant viewpoint discrimination and religious targeting'

A University of Iowa student walks across campus / Getty Images
February 5, 2019

The University of Iowa has placed 32 campus religious groups on probation because they are supposedly in violation of the school's antidiscrimination policy. The public became aware of the list during arguments in federal district court last week involving a Christian student group initially kicked off campus.

Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) brought together students for weekly discussions centered on prayer and biblical messages. The mission of the group is to form future business leaders who integrate the values of their faith into their work. BLinC's group leaders are expected to share its Christian faith.

In February 2017, a member of BLinC filed a complaint with the university after he was denied the chance to serve as the group's vice president because he was openly gay and disagreed with the group's views on marriage and sexuality. The student was told he could remain as a member but could not serve in a leadership role. Group leaders must affirm a statement of faith, which says they "embrace, not reject, their God-given sex" and support marriage between a man and a woman only.

The student then started a group called Love Works, which requires leaders to affirm the Christian faith but adheres to an alternative viewpoint on marriage and sexuality.

In November 2017, the university revoked BLinC's campus registration, claiming the requirement that group leaders sign a statement of faith affirming the group's religious beliefs violates the school's antidiscrimination policy.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is acting as counsel for the student group, notes that the university "supports the rights of other groups to select leaders who share and live by their mission." Fraternities are permitted to admit only men, the Feminist Union can require members to agree "on issues of contraception and abortion," and Students for Life mandates that members are pro-life.

In January 2018, a federal court reinstated BLinC on campus and gave the university 90 days to either allow all groups to select leaders affirming their mission or prevent all groups from restricting leadership. BLinC's reinstatement was extended to last throughout the course of the case after the university failed to apply its policy consistently.

In December, the Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest supporting BLinC with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. According to the Statement of Interest, the university violated the Constitution in three ways:

First, the University violated BLinC’s right of expressive association, which forbids exclusion of groups on the ground that officials find their views abhorrent. Second, that the University discriminated against BLinC based on its views on sexuality in violation of the fundamental free-speech principle the [sic] keeps the government from discriminating based on differing viewpoints. Finally, the government argues that it violated BLinC’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by discriminating against its religious beliefs.

Then came arguments last week in Des Moines federal court, where it became known that the University of Iowa placed 32 religious groups on probation. But as the Becket Fund's press release notes, "the university permits the largest groups on campus, fraternities and sororities—which comprise almost 20 percent of the student body—to remain single-sex, as well as sports clubs, feminist groups, and advocacy groups to limit their leaders and even members to students who share their mission."

"Instead of fostering a free exchange of diverse ideas, the university's policy is to discriminate against beliefs it doesn't like," BLinC's Jake Estell said. "We asked the Court for equal treatment—to let us have the same right as all student groups to express our viewpoints freely on campus, and to be who we are."

Eric Baxter, Becket's vice president and senior counsel, told the Washington Free Beacon that the judge asked the university's counsel about Love Works during last week's hearing. According to Baxter, the judge pointed out that Love Works has the opposite religious views on marriage and sexuality as BLinC, but is still allowed on campus.

When pressed on how that does not qualify as viewpoint discrimination, the university's counsel claimed the university made a mistake and Love Works should actually be on the nonapproved list, despite the fact the university had turned over a list of deregistered groups at the judge's request that did not include Love Works.

"The judge said, 'You can't say that, you don't have any evidence that that's true, you've admitted it in all of these papers. I asked you for a list of all the groups that have been deregistered or are on probation. You didn't list Love Works,' and she basically told them that he had already made his case and the evidence was in. He couldn't all of a sudden change his position," Baxter said.

"This is a case of blatant viewpoint discrimination and religious targeting. And that became clear on the phone yesterday that the university really has no legal theory justifying it," Baxter added.

The University of Iowa gave the following statement in response to a Free Beacon inquiry about the case:

The University of Iowa does not tolerate discrimination of any kind in accordance with federal and state law.

The University of Iowa respects the right of students, faculty, and staff to practice the religion of their choice. During orientation, new students are invited to learn about the 20 religious student organizations on campus and the worship opportunities in the surrounding community

Membership and participation in the organization must be open to all students without regard to 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. The organization will guarantee that equal opportunity and equal access to membership, programming, facilities, and benefits shall be open to all persons.

Published under: Iowa , Religious Freedom