A federal appeals court ruled last week that the University of Iowa discriminated against a Christian student group by kicking it off campus because of its faith-based standards.
The ruling by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was reached a few years after the Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) student club sued the university for deregistering them and violating their First Amendment rights. IU had argued it took that action because the group didn't allow a homosexual student member to hold a leadership position in the club, according to the Des Moines Register.
The University of Iowa attempted to justify ousting BLinC from campus by alleging that the club's qualifications for leadership positions were discriminatory in nature – even though the school allowed other student organizations on campus to make their own standards without the administration's approval.
For three years, the university got away with unconstitutionally shutting the Christian group down in more ways than one.
"In 2018, a District Court gave the University of Iowa 'qualified immunity,' ruling the school could not be held responsible because 'the law was not clearly established;' however, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals opposed the decision [last week], concurring the law was clear on BLinC's allegations on free-association and free-speech, but not free-exercise," ChristianHeadlines.com reported. "Therefore, the Court of Appeals asserts the University of Iowa is accountable for two of the three claims."
IU either incompetent … or in violation
In a separate statement, one of the judges argued that the Christian club's right to practice its free exercise of religion on campus is clearly established in the law.
"The individual defendants' choice to deny BLinC an exemption from the Human Rights Policy – while allowing exemptions for other secular and religious groups (that they approve of) – shows that they sought to advance their interests only against specific religious conduct," wrote Judge Jonathan A. Kobes.
The appeals court judge further argued that the same allowances granted to other student groups should have been extended to the Christian club – such as permissions that were given to secular groups permitting them to limit government positions to students who have views that align with the club or are consistent with specific prerequisites concerning students' ethnicity or gender.
"The purpose of qualified immunity is to shield good-faith actors who make mistaken judgments about unresolved issues of law, and it protects 'all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,' [as UI administrators] had more than 'fair warning' that their conduct was unconstitutional," Kobes added.
"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 – [and] 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."
Representing BLinC, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty senior counsel Daniel Blomberg shared that he's pleased with the latest ruling, implying that it's precedent-setting.
"This is not a big money case, [but] what was at issue was making sure this doesn't happen again," Blomberg told The Gazette. "What makes the ruling today so significant is that it sends a message – not only that a constitutional violation occurred, but that it's clearly established that this kind of selective enforcement violates the First Amendment. That's going to be very important for religious student groups across the country and at the University of Iowa."
Officials at the University of Iowa announced the school is considering its options after reviewing the Eighth Circuit's decision, according to The Gazette.