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Pepperdine University School of Law

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Christian Student Group Sues University of Iowa, Sparking Debate Over Religious Freedom, LGBT Rights

BLICIInside Higher Ed, Christian Student Group Sues University of Iowa, Sparking Debate Over Religious Freedom, LGBT Rights:

To show that it hasn't discriminated against a Christian student organization, the University of Iowa is withdrawing recognition from dozens of student groups. The move may be a sign of the political and legal times, as religious freedom advocacy groups are challenging public university policies that bar student organizations from discriminating against gay people. And the situation comes in the wake of a recent Supreme Court ruling that said antireligious bias can't be the motivation for state policies to protect gay rights.

To date, the university has withdrawn registration from 30 student organizations after they failed to submit constitutions that adhered to the university's human rights policy. The crackdown came amid a pending court case between the university and a Christian student organization, Business Leaders in Christ, which is suing the university after it withdrew recognition for the group for barring a gay member from assuming a leadership role.

The dispute began in March 2016, when a gay member of Business Leaders in Christ approached Hannah Thompson, then president of the organization, about becoming vice president. While the student was allowed to remain a member of the club, the group's executive board denied him a leadership role because “his decision to seek same-sex relationships was inconsistent with [Business Leaders in Christ]'s religious beliefs,” according to background provided by the legal group representing the Christian organization. ...

Almost a year later, the gay student, whose name has not been publicly disclosed, filed a complaint with the University of Iowa and requested that officials “either force [Business Leaders in Christ] to comply with the nondiscrimination policy (allow openly LGBTQ members to be leaders) or take away their status of being a student organization affiliated with the University of Iowa.”

As a result, Constance Shriver Cervantes, the university's compliance coordinator, investigated the matter and determined that Business Leaders in Christ violated the university's human rights policy, which reads in part, “In no aspect of [the University of Iowa's] programs shall there be differences in the treatment of persons because of 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. These principles are expected to be observed in the internal policies and practices of the University; specifically in the … policies governing programs of extracurricular life and activities.”

The policy is consistent with a 2010 Supreme Court decision that allows public universities to enforce antidiscrimination policies, even when religious groups claim that doing so goes against their beliefs. To have such policies, public colleges and universities must show that they apply the policies equally -- and not enforce them just against groups holding certain religious or political views.

At Iowa, student organizations are required to include a version of the above in their constitutions in order to be recognized as a registered student organization, a status that gives the organizations access to funding, email aliases, campus meeting spaces and other resources. After Shriver Cervantes completed her investigation, the university moved to withdraw recognition from Business Leaders in Christ, and so the organization sued the university to be reinstated in January 2018. Most recently, a federal district court ordered the extension of a preliminary injunction to maintain the group's registered status while further legal action is pending, citing the fact that hundreds of University of Iowa student groups were also found in violation of the human rights policy requirement. While most of those groups never discriminated against members or leaders, their constitutions lacked the necessary clause for official recognition, the same clause that Business Leaders in Christ was penalized for not including and ultimately violating.

"It appears a large number of student organizations were operating in violation of the university’s stated policies at the time the University revoked [Business Leaders in Christ]'s registered student organization status," Judge Stephanie Rose wrote in her decision. "The university does not reconcile that fact with how the proceedings against [Business Leaders in Christ] were carried out. Presently, too much remains unknown about what role [Business Leaders in Christ]'s viewpoint played, if any, in the decision to deregister the group."

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