A federal judge has ruled that the University of Iowa violated the religious liberty of Christian students by de-registering their business group for not allowing gay students to participate as leaders.
U.S. District Judge Stephanie M. Rose ordered the university to reinstate Business Leaders in Christ and put administrators on notice to more uniformly apply the school’s human rights policy.
“The Court sees no appreciable differences in the potential harms caused by [Business Leaders in Christ] and those caused by” other student groups, Judge Rose said in her Feb. 6 ruling, which awarded the students nominal damages of $1.
Business Leaders in Christ garnered national attention in 2017, when it was de-registered as a campus organization because it applied Bible-based beliefs about sexuality. It declined to give a leadership post to an openly gay student because its requires leaders to uphold its belief that homosexuality is “outside of God’s design.”
In de-registering the group, the university said the group violated the campus’ human rights policy, which says students cannot be excluded on the basis of sexual orientation, among other protected statuses. The Christian group then filed a lawsuit.
“We are grateful the court protected our rights today — to let us have the same right as all student groups to express our viewpoints freely on campus, and to be who we are,” said Jake Estell, a member of Business Leaders in Christ. “This victory reinforces the commonsense idea that universities can’t target religious student groups for being religious.”
Judge Rose ruled that the university had trespassed on the group’s First Amendment rights, saying the group’s expulsion amounted to religious discrimination.
“This case underscores the importance of pursuing the best-intentioned policies in an even-handed manner,” the judge said in her ruling.
She noted that the university allowed other student organizations to selectively admit members such as the Hawkapellas, a female a cappella group, and House of Lorde, which aims to maintain a “Black Queer” space on campus.
According to court documents, attorneys for the university had argued that other groups with selective admission rules provided a “safe space for minorities, which have historically been the victims of discrimination.”
The university has yet to publicly comment on the ruling. In an email, a spokeswoman said, “We are reviewing the ruling and will follow the court order.”
According to the university’s website, student groups can exist on campus regardless of being endorsed by the school. However, registered groups can access student activity funds, be included in campus publications and use campus facilities.
Judge Rose’s decision left open the possibility the university could de-register Business Leaders in Christ down the road, but only in the college enforces an “all-comers” policy that only recognizes groups that allow any student, regardless of status or belief, to join and become leaders.
“But because the University does not have an all-comers policy,” the judge wrote, “Martinez does not resolve the viewpoint-neutrality question here.”
She was referring to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which upheld a California law school’s delisting of a student group that banned gays as voting members. The school maintained an “all-comers” policy, which the court said was a neutral approach to authorize student groups.
The Department of Justice, which submitted a friend of the court brief for the student group, cheered the judge’s decision.
“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the religious, association and expressive freedoms enshrined in federal law,” said Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio said in a statement.