A federal judge granted students in a Christian business club at the University of Iowa the right to choose leaders who uphold their religious beliefs.
The university had withdrawn the registration of the club, BLinC, after a homosexual student complained he was not allowed to lead Bible studies and take other leadership roles.
But the club’s complaint argued a pro-gay club and other clubs had been allowed to choose leaders according to their own criteria.
The ruling by Judge Stephanie Rose protected individual university officials but ordered the university to $1 damages and to not enforce its Human Rights Policy against the club.
The judge mentioned the university showed bias toward the club because other student organizations were not held to the same standard.
The non-profit legal group Becket, which defended the club, said the university “kicked Business Leaders in Christ off campus because the group requires its student leaders to affirm and live by its religious beliefs. After the university admitted that it knowingly targeted and deregistered BLinC and other religious groups, the court … ruled that the university must end its unequal treatment.”
The university similarly discriminated against 32 religious campus groups.
“Yet the university permits fraternities to remain single-sex and allows other groups to limit their leaders (and even members) to students who share their mission,” Becket said.
The court’s ruling states: “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.”
Club member 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.”
The club allows anyone to be a member, but to preserve its religious mission, it asks leaders to affirm that they believe in and live according to its Christian beliefs.
“The university wanted a license to discriminate, and Judge Rose said no way,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “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. 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.”
Becket has a parallel lawsuit against the university over its treatment of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
The lawsuit by BLinC was filed after the university ordered the students to change their statement of faith and behave in an “acceptable” way when choosing leaders.
“Meanwhile, the university permits 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,” said Becket.
Federal officials had sided with the students, stating the university discriminated against the club “because its message failed to conform to university orthodoxy.”
That not only harms “the free and open discourse” of the university, it also is “a textbook violation of BLinC’s First Amendment rights” to free association, free speech and the free exercise of religion, a government filing said.