The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa recently ended a battle for religious freedom and freedom of speech between a Christian organization called Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) and the University of Iowa.
It all began in the fall of 2017 when members of the religious organization were accused of denying a leadership position to an openly gay member. Shortly after the denial, the University of Iowa (UI) not only stripped BLinC of its registered student organization status, it accused the organization of discrimination, stating that BLinC had violated the University’s human rights policy.
Instead of giving in, BLinC filed its own lawsuit against the University, accusing them of violating the group’s First Amendment rights. The campus organization also stated they were being treated unfairly because of their religious policies.
BLinC invites all University students on campus to become a part of their group, but in order to preserve its religious mission, BLinC requires that those in leadership live out their religious beliefs. This means that sexual conduct only take place between a man and a woman. According to BLinC when an openly gay member applied for a leadership position “he rejected BLinC’s religious beliefs and would not follow them.”
After the complaint was filed, the University asked the group to “revise” their Statement of Faith and to submit an “acceptable plan” for selecting its leaders. When the group did not comply, they were kicked off campus.
U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose recently ruled in favor of BLinC stating that UI violated the organization’s rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. Judge Rose said that the group was discriminated against because the University’s human rights policy was not being enforced for every organization on campus and that BLinC was singled out among over 500 student organizations for not adhering to the policy.
The University’s human rights policy forbids student organizations from treating members differently based 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.”
In a 37-page order, Judge Rose said that BLinC was “prevented from expressing its viewpoints on protected characteristics” while other student groups were allowed to espouse different viewpoints. One example of a campus organization she cited had cited was a gay rights club called Love Works. “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.”
BLinC had also pointed out that other groups on campus limited leadership and membership to those who agree with their religious beliefs. One example the group noted was an organization called Imam Mahdi who only reserved leadership positions for Shia Muslims.
“The university wanted a license to discriminate, and Judge Rose said no way,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represented BLinC.
“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 wasn’t the only organization on campus that the University had discriminated against. Prior to the hearing, which took place February 1, 2019, UI revealed it placed nearly every religious group on campus on probation until the case of BLinC v. University of Iowa had been decided.
On February 9, the court ruled that the University needed to end its discrimination against religious student organizations and that BLinC would be permanently allowed back on campus.
Members of BLinC are both happy and relieved that the courts sided with them.
BLinC president Jake Estell said, “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. This victory reinforces the commonsense idea that universities can’t target religious student groups for being religious.”
According to a statement on Becket’s website, the reason this win is so important for religious liberty is that, “There is a nation-wide trend of curbing free speech and free association—especially religious speech in religious groups—on college campuses. But students do not forfeit their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, religion, and association by studying at a taxpayer-supported public university.”