The U.S. Court for Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled Friday that University of Iowa administrators targeted religious organizations for discriminatory treatment and further found that administrators can be held personally liable for their actions.
The case was brought by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, a student organization active at the University of Iowa for 25 years before it was deregistered following a review of student groups’ compliance with the university’s Human Rights Code in 2018. According to the ruling, reviewers involved in the “Student Org Clean Up Proposal” were instructed to “look at religious student groups first.”
“We are hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination,” the appeals court found. “The University focused its ‘clean up’ on specific religious groups and then selectively applied the Human Rights Policy against them. Other groups were simply glossed over or ignored.”
The court further found that employees are not shielded from personal liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that grants government officials immunity from civil lawsuits except in cases where their conduct violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
"What the University did here was clearly unconstitutional,” the appeals court found. “It targeted religious groups for differential treatment under the Human Rights Policy -- while carving out exemptions and ignoring other violative groups with missions they presumably supported. The University and individual defendants turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence or they proceeded full speed ahead knowing they were violating the law. Either way, qualified immunity provides no safe haven.”
The appeals court previously issued a substantively similar ruling in March involving a challenge brought by a different Christian student group deregistered by Iowa
Iowa said in a statement that "the university respects the decision of the court and will move forward in accordance with the decision."