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University of Iowa lawsuit tackles rights of faith-based student groups

By Pamela Manson
University of Iowa lawsuit tackles rights of faith-based student groups
A federal judge says the University of Iowa is selectively enforcing its human rights policy for student groups. File Photo by Ken Wolter/Shutterstock

Oct. 31 (UPI) -- The University of Iowa is appealing a federal judge's ruling that it violated the constitutional rights of a Christian student group by selectively enforcing a school policy against it.

The ruling also says three UI administrators must pay out of their own pockets any damages awarded to the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which lost its status as a Registered Student Organization in 2018 because it required that its leaders affirm the group's statement of faith.

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Administrators decided that the requirement violated the university's human rights policy.

But U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose said other student groups were not held to the same standard. The three administrators -- Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers, Associate Dean of Student Organizations William Nelson and Coordinator for Student Organization Development Andrew Kutcher -- understood from an order she had issued earlier in 2018 in a similar lawsuit that they could not apply the policy inconsistently, Rose says in her ruling.

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Lawyers for the university filed a notice Friday that the defendants will appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a written statement, UI says it revised its student organization policy this year to allow groups to require leaders "to agree to and support" their beliefs.

"This change is in alignment with a new state law and Board of Regents policy addressing student organizations and the First Amendment," the statement says. "The University of Iowa has always respected the right of students, faculty and staff to practice the religion of their choice."

InterVarsity has chapters on 772 campuses nationwide and has been at the University of Iowa for more than 25 years. The UI chapter hosts Bible studies, holds prayer meetings and participates in service projects. Membership and participation are open to all students, who are not required to affirm their faith unless they are leaders.

On June 1, 2018, chapter leaders received an email from the university saying they had until June 15 to change their leadership selection practices or be deregistered. They were told the university was enforcing its human rights policy, according to InterVarsity's lawsuit.

The UI human rights policy prohibits difference in treatment of people because of religion, race, creed, color, 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." The university had mandated that each registered student organization incorporate a nearly identical human rights clause into their constitutions.

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In July 2018, the university took away InterVarsity's designation as an RSO, which limited its access to campus; froze its bank account; shut down its website; and advertised that it was "defunct" for lack of student interest. As a result, chapter membership at the Iowa City campus dropped sharply, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that represents InterVarsity.

Some of the other religious groups that required their leaders to share their faith also lost their RSO status, the lawsuit says. Those organizations include the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship, the Geneva Campus Ministry, the Imam Mahdi Organization, the Latter-day Saint Student Association and the Sikh Awareness Club.

InterVarsity filed suit in August 2018 claiming its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the Iowa Constitution and the Iowa Human Rights Act were being violated. The suit seeks to stop the university from withholding RSO status from InterVarsity and other student organizations on the basis of their religious leadership selection policies and an unspecified amount of damages.

A week later, the religious organizations were reinstated while the litigation is pending.

In her ruling last month, Rose said the university was discriminating by applying its human rights policy inconsistently.

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The judge points that under UI's interpretation of the policy, requiring or even encouraging the leaders of faith-based RSOs to agree with the organizations' beliefs is a form of religious discrimination. Yet, other groups are still permitted to have statements requiring or "encouraging" their leaders and members to be part of a class protected under the human rights policy, she says.

Rose's ruling says IU sports clubs restricts participation and leadership based on gender. The Tau Sigma Military Dental Club restricts membership to full-time military-sponsored students at the College of Dentistry. The Women in Science and Engineering Ambassadors encourages women to be members. And the Iowa Edge Student Organization is open to all students "with particular emphasis for," among other traits and interests, students of color.

"Further, the university does not appear to interpret the human rights policy uniformly as to all religious groups," the ruling says. "Notably, Love Works is a Christian group that requires its leaders to agree with the group's core beliefs, which include affirming those in the LGBTQ+ community and acknowledging that 'Jesus will be at the center of everything we do.'"

Despite that requirement, the UI considers Love Works to be in compliance with the policy, the ruling says.

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A similar suit was filed in 2017 by Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), a student organization that requires its leaders to embrace its mission. BLinC sued after being deregistered and Rose determined early in the litigation that the group was likely to succeed on its claim that its free speech rights had been violated. She granted a preliminary injunction in January 2018 restoring BLinC's RSO status until the conclusion of the suit, which is pending.

After that ruling, UI reviewed all RSOs for compliance with the human-rights policy, which led to the deregistration of InterVarsity and other organizations.

Daniel Blomberg, Becket's senior counsel, says he was stunned that additional organizations were deregistered.

"It seems clear to us that the court had told the university not to discriminate against student groups," he said.

In the September ruling, Rose said, "The record is clear Shivers, Nelson and Kutcher each understood the preliminary injunction order to mean that the university could not selectively enforce the human rights policy against some RSOs but not others."

The InterVarsity case is scheduled to go to trial in February to resolve remaining issues, including whether there is enough evidence to also hold UI President Bruce Harreld liable for damages.

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