A Christian student group at the University of Iowa can’t be stripped of its affiliation with the institution, even if its members follow a “statement of faith” that bans those in LGBTQ relationships from leadership roles, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
The decision by Judge Stephanie M. Rose has alarmed advocates for queer men and women. They are worried it would open the door for a challenge of a U.S. Supreme Court case from 2010 that allows colleges and universities to enforce antidiscrimination policies, even when student religious organizations claim those policies infringe on their beliefs. That ruling requires colleges that want to enforce such antibias rules to apply them to all groups equally. Judge Rose's decision, however, suggests that her ruling may be relevant only to circumstances at Iowa.
The clash between Iowa officials and Business Leaders in Christ began in 2016.
A gay student had approached the then president, Hannah Thompson, about becoming vice president and, during a discussion, disclosed to her his sexuality.
The student, whose name has never been publicly released, was denied the leadership post. Thompson said this was because of his “desire to pursue a homosexual lifestyle/relationship,” according to court documents.
In 2017, the gay student filed a complaint with the university, asking administrators to take away Business Leaders in Christ's status as a recognized student group unless it followed the university’s antidiscrimination rules (which include allowing LGBTQ students to be club leaders).
Officials investigated and deemed the organization out of line with the university’s human rights policy, which bars discrimination 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.”
Group members in response created a “statement of faith” that all club leaders would need to sign -- in part, it noted the members’ belief that any sexual relationship other than a man and a woman is “not in keeping with God’s original plan for humanity.”
Administrators urged group members to strike the piece of the faith statement that prohibited same-sex relationships, but they refused, and their university recognition was revoked. This meant they could no longer reserve spaces on campus to meet or use student activities funds or universitywide communications services.
Business Leaders in Christ sued the institution and three administrators in December 2017, alleging their constitutional rights of free speech and religious freedom had been infringed.
Rose wrote that while there was nothing illegal about the university’s human rights policy, it had been inconsistently applied.
Rose, an appointee of President Obama, wrote that other student groups seem to have rules that violate the policy. The Chinese Students and Scholars Association limits membership to Chinese students. The Iowa Hawkapellas, an a capella group, only accepts women. And Iowa’s chapter of the National Lawyers Guild excludes students with certain political viewpoints, an administrator testified.
“The court suspects that some observers will portray this case as a fundamental conflict between nondiscrimination laws and religious liberty,” Rose wrote. “Appealing as that may be, it overinflates the issues before the court. The human rights policy promotes valuable goals for both the university and society at large. There is no fault to be found with the policy itself. But the Constitution does not tolerate the way defendants 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 Defendants have failed to withstand.”
Rose granted Business Leaders in Christ a permanent injunction that forbids the university from rejecting the group based on the human rights policy.
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the student group in the case, called Rose’s decision “a win for basic fairness.”
“It is also an eloquent plea for civility in how governments treat Americans in all their diversity,” Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement. “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.”
Iowa did not respond to request for comment but told The Des Moines Register it was reviewing Wednesday’s decision.
Despite Rose’s warning that the case was more free speech oriented, some LGBTQ activists view the ruling as an attack on protections for queer students.
SoulForce, a nonprofit dedicated to ending LGBTQ discrimination in the Christian faith, has found that these “statements of faith” often tend to target specific people or issues, said Yaz Mendez Nuñez, its director of programs and communications.
While on their face they may seem innocuous, often the statements contain dangerous language against LGBTQ people or reproductive rights, without much other substance, Nuñez said. “We know there are so many ways to read the Christian Bible that do not promote spiritual violence and do not back up that particular belief between one man and one woman,” Nuñez said.
Nuñez said the group was concerned that the decision would create more legal opportunities for discrimination.
The issues at hand in the Iowa case tend to mirror those decided in the Supreme Court ruling in 2010, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.
Christian Legal Society, which rejects gay members and others who do not fall in line with its beliefs, had filed a lawsuit against the Hastings College of Law of the University of California, testing its antibias rules. In a 5-to-4 ruling, the court backed the institution. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority that public institutions can impose antidiscrimination policies that are consistent for all student groups.
Because the Martinez case was decided on such a tight margin, some legal experts have questioned whether these issues will be tried again, said Peter F. Lake, professor of law and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University.
If the Iowa ruling isn’t elevated to the Supreme Court, then it is a harbinger of a case that will, Lake said.
“I don’t think this is the last of these cases; unless this is the one that goes up, other people will test these issues,” Lake said.
Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, wrote in an email that this case represents a stark contrast between legitimate First Amendment principles and a desire by colleges and universities to prevent discrimination.
“Restricting membership or leadership on the basis of a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation feels antithetical to the core values of most colleges and universities,” Kruger wrote. “So Iowa’s fight against discriminating against the LGBTQ community is laudable. However, just as in cases where speakers whose viewpoints may be inconsistent with a college’s core values must have a forum for their voice to be heard, this case reminds us that the same protections need to be provided for student organizations as well.”