Federal Court: University of Iowa Illegally Targeted Religious Groups

University of Iowa / Facebook

A federal court ruled Wednesday that the University of Iowa "illegally targeted religious groups for requiring their leaders to believe in and follow their faith," a victory for a Christian student organization known as a Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC).

The court "ruled that the university must end its unequal treatment of religious student organizations" and granted BLinC "a permanent place on campus," according to a press release from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which served as counsel to BLinC.

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 decision to revoke BLinC's registration came after a student filed a complaint with the university after he was denied the chance to serve in a leadership position in the group because he was openly gay and disagreed with the group's views on marriage and sexuality.

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It became known last week during court arguments that the University of Iowa placed 32 religious groups on probation for supposedly violating the school's antidiscrimination policy. The university continued to permit "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."

The court determined the university applied its Human Rights Policy unevenly.

"The Constitution does not tolerate the way [the university] 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 [the university] ha[s] failed to withstand," the ruling stated.

A member of BLinC expressed his gratitude for the court recognizing the university's failure to consistently apply policy.

"We are grateful the court protected our rights today—to let us have the same right as all student groups to express our viewpoints freely on campus, and to be who we are," Jake Estell said. "This victory reinforces the commonsense idea that universities can’t target religious student groups for being religious."

Eric Baxter, Becket's vice president and senior counsel, said the ruling was a rejection of the university's request for a "license to discriminate."

"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," Baxter said. "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."