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Sunday, April 18, 2021

‘Blatant Religious Discrimination’: Federal Court Takes Univ. of Iowa to School for Canceling Christian Club

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that University of Iowa officials who kicked a Christian student club off campus because of its faith can be held personally accountable for their actions.

Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC, a student group at the school, said the university targeted them for requiring student leaders to affirm the Christian faith.

The university claimed this was a violation of its nondiscrimination policy, even though it allowed other religious groups to select faith-compliant leaders and openly encouraged other groups—like fraternities and sororities—to select leaders based on certain characteristics covered by the nondiscrimination policy.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of the BLinC, recognizing the selective enforcement of the school’s policy violated the First Amendment. 

“The law is clear: state organizations may not target religious groups for differential treatment or withhold an otherwise available benefit solely because they are religious. That is what happened here. The individual defendants may pick their poison: they are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution. Either way, they should not get qualified immunity,” Judge Jonathan A. Kobes wrote.

“BLinC takes good students and makes them better by strengthening their resolve to remain true to their moral compass in the cutthroat business world,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, the religious rights group that represented BLinC in the case. 

“Any wise university would be thrilled to have them on campus, but the University of Iowa tried hounding them off instead. Fortunately, the First Amendment protects their right to remain on campus on the same terms as every other student group,” Baxter continued.

In October 2017, after a student complained about being denied a leadership position in the BLinC, school officials subjected the Christian student group to a lengthy investigation, ultimately demanding the group “revise” its beliefs and strip faith from its leadership criteria. But while BLinC welcomes all students as members, to maintain its religious mission, it seeks leaders who agree with its faith. 

And while other campus clubs were allowed to set their own criteria for leaders, the school removed BLinC from campus for doing the same thing, telling them their leadership selection was discriminatory. 

Even after a federal judge warned the university about its double standards, university officials reportedly went on a de-registering spree, ultimately kicking other Christian student groups off campus for reserving leadership positions for students who shared their faith. 

At the same time, fraternities and sororities, political groups, and other ideology-based organizations were left untouched, even though they discriminate based on gender or other characteristics protected by the nondiscrimination policy, or—like BLinC—agreement with their underlying mission.

A lower court last year ruled that the school’s discrimination against BLinC was illegal and that the university had to let BLinC back on campus once and for all. The Eighth Circuit’s decision affirms that ruling while holding the individual university officials personally responsible for their discriminatory application of the school’s nondiscrimination policy.

“It’s deeply ironic that school officials tried using the university’s nondiscrimination policy to discriminate against religion,” said Baxter. “They knew this was wrong, yet did it anyway. We’re pleased the court has recognized that such blatant religious discrimination brings personal consequences.”

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