Court rules UI discriminated against student group

The ruling says the UI discriminated against Business Leaders in Christ when the UI revoked the organization’s registered student-group status.


Wyatt Dlouhy

The Old Capitol building is seen in 2018.

Marissa Payne and Brooklyn Draisey

A federal court on Wednesday ruled that the University of Iowa cannot revoke a group’s registered student-organization status because of a group’s requirement that leaders follow its faith statement.

The ruling comes after the UI was ordered to reinstate the group’s student-organization status after the UI removed Business Leaders in Christ in late 2017, when the UI found merit in a complaint lodged against the organization by then-sophomore Marcus Miller. He said he filed a discrimination complaint in accordance with the UI Human Rights Policy after Business Leaders in Christ had revoked a leadership position for him upon finding out he was gay.

A federal district court ordered the UI to maintain the organization’s registered student-organization status until the case’s conclusion.

“There is no fault to be found with the policy itself,” U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose wrote of the Human Rights Policy in the ruling. “But the Constitution does not tolerate the way Defendants chose to enforce the Human Rights Policy.”

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The UI is prohibited from discriminating against Business Leaders in Christ based on the content of the group’s leadership-selection policies, the ruling stated, provided the UI continues to allow other registered groups “exceptions to the Human Rights Policy for their membership or leadership criteria” and provided Business Leaders in Christ otherwise maintains eligibility to remain registered.

The ruling also ordered the UI pay the student organization $1 for “nominal damages.”

While there are “elements of nondiscrimination laws and the university setting that could be viewed as complicating this case,” the ruling stated, “such laws generally do not violate the First Amendment because they target discrimination rather than protected speech… It is also clear that a university may not illegally burden a student’s free exercise rights.”

The ruling was a “close call,” as the law was “not so clear that only a state official who was ‘plainly incompetent’ or ‘knowingly violate[d] the law’ could commit the constitutional violations at issue here,” the ruling stated.

“We are reviewing the ruling and will follow the court order,” UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said in an email to The Daily Iowan.

RELATED: Business Leaders in Christ reinstated on campus after discrimination complaint 

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represented Business Leaders in Christ in the case.

“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,” Business Leaders in Christ’s Jake Estell said in a Wednesday news release. “This victory reinforces the commonsense idea that universities can’t target religious student groups for being religious.”

In a Tuesday news release, Becket officials accused the UI of having released a watch list of 32 groups on campus under “probationary status” to the court on Feb. 1. All of these groups were affiliated with a religion.

Beck said in an email that these claims are false and a misinterpretation of the facts. The university conducted a compliance review of all constitutions of all the student organizations on campus at the direction of the court, but had stopped while the UI waited for court direction as to whether the religious organizations are in compliance or not.

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“The university has maintained the registered status of all religious and faith-based groups allowing them full access to all benefits, funding, facilities, and resources that are offered to all other student organizations on campus,” Beck said. “Therefore, the university has not placed any religious student organization on ‘probationary status’ as insinuated by BLinC’s legal counsel.”

Student organization InterVarsity, a faith-based organization that sued the UI on similar grounds as Business Leaders in Christ, is still pending before the court.