On Wednesday, a federal judge ordered the University of Iowa to restore a Christian group’s status as an official student organization. Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), which was founded in the Tippie College of Business in 2014, had its designation as an official student organization revoked in 2017 after UI officials investigated a complaint that the 10-member group had violated the university’s policy against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
A BLinC member had filed a complaint with the university, claiming the group rejected his bid to be its vice president because he is gay. 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 asserts that in the version of Christianity it embraces, God only approves of sexual relationships between men and women.
UI officials decided that BLinC had violated the university’s Human Rights policy, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Rather than appealing the administration’s decision to the Iowa Board of Regents, BLinC filed a federal lawsuit against UI in December 2017.
In its lawsuit, BLinC claims the university’s requirement that religious student organizations adhere to its Human Right policy represents an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. But in her ruling, Judge Stephanie Rose of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa rejected that sweeping claim, finding the problem wasn’t the policy, but the way UI had been enforcing it. The university has exempted other religious student organizations from complying with parts of the policy that conflict with their beliefs.
The Court suspects that some observers will portray this case as a fundamental conflict between nondiscrimination laws and religious liberty. Appealing as that may be, it overinflates the issues before the Court. The Human Rights Policy promotes valuable goals for both the University and society at large. There is no fault to be found with the policy itself. But the Constitution does not tolerate the way Defendants chose to enforce the Human Rights Policy. Particularly when free speech is involved, the uneven application of any policy risks the most exacting standard of judicial scrutiny, which Defendants have failed to withstand.
In addition to a permanent injunction requiring UI to grant BLinC official student organization status, provided the group “does not materially alter its Statement of Faith or leadership selection” and UI continues to grant other religious student organizations exemptions from its Human Rights policy, Rose also ordered UI to pay BLinC $1 in damages.
Following the ruling, UI issued a statement: “We are reviewing the ruling and will follow the court order.” The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents BLinC in its lawsuit, called Rose’s decision “a win for basic fairness.”
Wednesday’s decision did not resolve all the issues in the case, and according to the decision, the court will consult with both parties to determine how they want to proceed.
Rose had previously granted a 90-day temporary injunction restoring BLinC’s status in January 2018, so the group could participate in that month’s Student Organization Fair.
As an official student organization, BLinC will be able 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.