Five UI student groups file a brief supporting Christian group’s lawsuit against the university

Illustration by Blair Gauntt

Five faith-based student organizations at the University of Iowa have filed a brief in federal court supporting the lawsuit filed against the UI by Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), after the university stripped the 10-member group of its official recognition as a UI campus organization, because university officials determined it had violated anti-discrimination laws and policies. Four of the groups — Chi Alpha, 24:7, Ratio Christi and Christian Medical & Dental Associations — define themselves as Christian. The fifth, Chabad on Campus, identifies itself as Jewish.

In December, BLinC, which was founded by a small group of Tippie College of Business students in 2014, sued the UI, claiming the university had violated the group’s right to religious liberty, when it revoked the group’s official recognition in November, following a complaint by a BLinC member that the group rejected his bid to be its vice president because he is gay. On Thursday, there will be a hearing in federal court in Davenport, on BLinC’s request for a preliminary injunction that will restore its official recognition while the lawsuit proceeds.

“Government officials cannot control who religious groups select as their religious leadership,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told Little Village via email.

The Becket Fund, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit law firm that specializes in religious liberty lawsuits, is representing BLinC. In 2014, the Becket Fund represented Hobby Lobby in its successful lawsuit to get an exemption from certain federal regulations based on the religious beliefs of the for-profit corporation’s owners.

The five campus organizations supporting BLinC are represented by the Alliance for Freedom, an Arizona-based nonprofit organization that promotes conservative Christian ideas and policies. The brief filed by the five organizations echoes Baxter’s claim. The groups argue that if they are required to adhere to university or state anti-discrimination policies in making leadership decisions in order to retain official recognition, it would jeopardize “their effectiveness and the very existence of these groups.”

The filing also notes that 24:7 had a similar complaint filed against it last year, after it refused to allow an openly gay member lead Bible study sessions. The complaint was dropped after that member quit the group.

The complaint against BLinC was filed in Feb. 2017. After an investigation, university officials decided that BLinC’s refusal to allow gay students to assume leadership roles violated the UI’s Human Rights Policy and the Iowa Civil Rights Act. BLinC asserts that in the version of Christianity it embraces, God only approves of sexual relationships between men and women. BLinC maintains that its actions were not based on the member being gay, but because the member did not agree with “BLinC’s religious beliefs and would not follow them.”

BLinC appealed the decision to revoke its status to Dean Lyn Redington, UI assistant vice president and dean of students, but Redington determined the group’s policy under review “does not comply with the University’s Human Rights policy … [and] would have the effect of disqualifying certain individuals from leadership positions based on sexual orientation or gender identity.” Redington went on to note that any campus group is free to adopt such policies, but those groups will not receive official recognition by the UI.

Official recognition allows a campus organization to use various university facilities and receive funds from the University of Iowa Student Government (UISG) to support its activities. In fiscal year 2017, BLinC spent $546.26 provided by UISG. The UI argues that if BLinC wants to use of facilities paid for by tax dollars and receive student government funds, it has to follow the same anti-discrimination policies other campus organizations do.

BLinC could have appealed the UI’s decision to the Iowa Board of Regents, but chose to sue instead. Asked why BLinC didn’t take its case to the regents, Baxter said the group had already spent “months taking time away from classes, work, and summer vacation trying to persuade the University to treat it fairly.”

“Federal law is crystal clear that students don’t have to continue suffering a violation of their First Amendment rights after those rights have already been irreparably harmed by government officials,” he said.

That BLinC is currently suffering irreparable harm is one of claims in the request for preliminary injunction. The group also claims that unless its official status is immediately restored it will be “unable to participate in the University’s upcoming spring recruitment fairs, which will take place on January 24 and 25, 2018, and are crucial to BLinC’s continued existence.”

In its response to BLinC’s filing, UI notes that while there seven recruitment fairs during the period in which the group was officially recognized, BLinC only attended three of them.

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