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Judge (Again) Finds Iowa Violated Christian Group's Rights

For second time this year, federal court rules that University of Iowa breached group's First Amendment rights by de-registering it. This time, judge says individual administrators could be liable.

October 1, 2019
 
University of Iowa

In January, a federal judge ruled that the University of Iowa violated the First Amendment rights of a group called Business Leaders in Christ by de-recognizing it because its “statement of faith” bans those in LGBTQ relationships from leadership roles.

On Friday, the same federal judge in Iowa issued a very similar ruling involving a similarly situated Christian student group at the university. But this decision goes further: it finds that Iowa administrators could be held personally liable for damages because they should have known better than to treat the second group that way after the ruling in the earlier case.

University officials, Judge Stephanie M. Rose wrote, "proceeded to broaden enforcement of the Human Rights Policy in the name of uniformity applying extra scrutiny to religious groups in the process -- while at the same time continuing to allow some groups to operate in violation of the policy and formalizing an exemption for fraternities and sororities. The court does not know how a reasonable person could have concluded this was acceptable, as it plainly constitutes the same selective application of the Human Rights Policy that the Court found constitutionally infirm" in the February ruling.

The two cases' histories are intertwined. Business Leaders in Christ sued the university in late 2017, arguing that Iowa officials violated the group's free speech, association and religious exercise rights by applying their human rights policy in a way that prohibited religious student groups from requiring their leaders to agree with and live by the organizations' religious beliefs.

In early 2018, Judge Rose issued a preliminary injunction in the case involving Business Leaders in Christ, which it reinforced in the aforementioned January 2019 decision that made the injunction permanent. Rose issued the preliminary injunction -- requiring the university to restore the business group's registered status for 90 days -- because she believed the group would likely succeed in proving its free speech claims.

In the wake of the early 2018 preliminary injunction, Iowa reviewed the constitutions of all of its registered student groups to see whether they conflicted with the human rights policy, according to Friday's ruling. Through that review, university officials declared that language in InterVarsity's constitution requiring its leaders to be Christian violated the rights policy, and said that it would have to change its rules if it wished to remain a registered student group. It did not, and the university de-registered InterVarsity in June 2018. It sued last August.

Judge Rose's analysis of the InterVarsity case largely mirrors her findings in the Business Leaders in Christ case; broadly, she finds that the university violated the group's rights to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religious exercise. Her analysis focuses not on whether the human rights policy was constitutional, but on whether university officials applied the policy equitably to all groups. She concludes that they did not, in ways that unfairly discriminated against InterVarsity.

The biggest difference between the two cases, though, comes in the judge's conclusion about liability for campus administrators. In the business leaders' case, the court determined that university officials deserved qualified immunity, because "the university's compelling interests in the human rights policy, along with the university setting," differentiated that case from previous legal precedents that prohibit "selective application of a nondiscrimination policy."

The InterVarsity case was different, Rose ruled. Once the judge ruled as she did, issuing the preliminary injunction in the business leaders' case in January 2018, Iowa officials were bound by precedential federal law not to "selectively enforce its human rights policy against a religious student group." But that's precisely what they did, Rose said, in de-registering InterVarsity that June.

Rose ruled that several Iowa officials -- Melissa S. Shivers, vice president for student life; William R. Nelson, associate dean of student organizations; and Andrew Kutcher, coordinator for student organization development -- "each understood the preliminary injunction to mean that the university could not selectively enforce the Human Rights Policy against some RSOs but not others." As a result, the judge said, they do not qualify for immunity and could face financial damages at a later stage of the proceedings.

Rose said the plaintiffs had offered insufficient evidence that Iowa's president, Bruce Harreld, and another official were similarly liable for violating InterVarsity's rights, but leaves open the possibility that such a case might be made during a trial.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a news release that it was "too bad it took twice for the university to learn its lesson. There was no excuse the first time for squashing students’ First Amendment rights. University officials nationwide should now take note that religious discrimination will hit them in the pocketbook."

A statement from the University of Iowa said that the institution had "revised its student organization policy to permit student organizations" earlier this year "to require their leaders 'to agree to and support' the organization’s beliefs. With this change, student organizations such as InterVarsity have been participating in campus life this fall."

The statement said the university "has always respected the right of students, faculty and staff to practice the religion of their choice," and that these cases "presented a difficult issue for a public university as administrators tried to balance the rights of all individuals on campus."

It added, "University administrators acted in good faith as they attempted to navigate the complicated interplay between the First and 14th Amendments and the direct conflict with the Iowa Civil Rights Act."

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