A federal judge has ruled in favor of a Christian student group that was denied official recognition by the University of Iowa for refusing to accept gay students in leadership roles.
In a 31-page decision, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose, an Obama appointee, issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday in favor of Business Leaders in Christ on the basis that the University of Iowa was selectively enforcing its non-discrimination policy.
“In light of this selective enforcement, the court finds BLinC has established the requisite fair chance of prevailing on the merits of its claims under the Free Speech Clause,” Rose writes.
Founded in spring 2014, Business Leaders in Christ is a religious group for students at the Tippie College of Business at the university.
Jacob Estell, student president of Business Leaders in Christ, said in a statement the court ruling was a victory.
“The university would never let Iowa State’s Cy the Cardinal lead the Hawkeyes,” Estell said. “So why would it think it is okay to force religious student groups to select leaders who don’t embrace their mission?”
The controversy of the case began in March 2016, when a University of Iowa student and member of Business Leaders in Christ approached the organization’s then-president, Hannah Thompson, about running for vice president.
The student confided to Thompson “he thought he was gay and that he was struggling with how that related to his faith,” according to the court decision. After the two studied scripture on homosexuality and prayed, Thompson said she’d need to consult the group’s leadership on the way forward. The executive committee then determined “the member did not share BLinC’s views of the Bible and did not appear willing to confess and repent of sinful conduct.”
“The board concluded that, due to these disagreements with BLinC’s faith, the member could not lead BLinC in a manner reliably interpreting and applying the Bible’s teachings,” the decision says.
After additional discussion in which the member said he intended to pursue same-sex relationships, Thompson informed him he could remain a member, but wouldn’t be eligible for leadership roles.
In response, the member filed a complaint with the University of Iowa on the basis that he was “denied a leadership position (Vice President) due to my being openly gay.”
The school determined Business Leaders in Christ violated University of Iowa’s human rights policy, which denies official standing to school groups that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. After some additional jockeying in which was the group was invited was invited to revise its policy, University of Iowa Dean of Students Lyn Redington rescinded Business Leaders in Christ’s official standing.
Although Business Leader in Christ is allowed to exist, the lack of official recognition meant it would no longer be eligible for certain benefits, including access to school funds, inclusion in university publications, use of campus facilities for meetings and the ability to apply for honors and awards.
In the aftermath, Business Leader in Christ filed a complaint in federal court in December, which resulted in the decision Rose handed down Tuesday.
At first blush, the federal court ruling seems to defy Supreme Court precedent set in the 2010 decision of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which determined public schools can have policies denying official recognition to student groups for refusing to admit gay students.
In her analysis, Rose finds the Martinez ruling applies to the case because the University of Iowa had stripped Business Leaders in Christ of its official recognition on the basis that denying leadership roles to gay students violated school policy.
“Here, the policy is clearly not aimed at any particular view, ideology, or opinion,” Rose writes. “The language is familiar, essentially boilerplate language repeated in similar terms in civil and human rights codes nationwide, including the Iowa Civil Rights Act and the Iowa City Human Rights Code.”
But Rose nonetheless rules in Business Leaders in Christ’s favor on the basis that the school appeared to have selectively enforced its policy. As evidence, she points to Imam Mahdi, a Muslim group, continuing to have official status even though it allows full membership to only Shia Muslims.
“The court must conclude on the current record that BLinC has shown that the university does not consistently and equally apply its Human Rights Policy,” Rose writes. “This raises an issue regarding whether BLinC’s viewpoint was the reason it was not allowed to operate with membership requirements that the university had determined violated the policy, while at the same time Imam Mahdi was not subjected to any enforcement action.”
Rose concludes Business Leaders in Christ is entitled to a preliminary injunction as litigation continues, citing irreparable harm without recognition through the group’s potential loss of school funds and public exposure at University of Iowa.
The court orders University of Iowa to reinstate Business Leaders in Christ’s official recognition for 90 days. After that period, the group may seek further action and the University of Iowa can respond by changing school policy.
Anthony Kreis, a visiting assistant law professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said the decision “was consistent with Martinez” even though the judge in the case ruled in favor of the student group.
“Importantly, Judge Rose’s ruling didn’t call into question the university’s nondiscrimination policy, but the unequal enforcement of it,” Kreis said. “The key lesson, perhaps, for higher education administrators is that they must be proactive in enforcing their all-comers policies to avoid selective enforcement. Ultimately, this ruling doesn’t undermine Martinez.”
Representing Business Leaders in Christ was the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the same legal group that represented Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor in cases challenging the contraception mandate under Obamacare.
Eric Baxter, senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement the decision in favor of Business Leaders in Christ was a victory for religious freedom.
“The court agreed that the university has to stop discriminating against BLinC because of its religious beliefs,” Baxter said. “Every other group on campus gets to select leaders who embrace their mission. Religious groups don’t get second-class treatment.”
Should the University of Iowa seek an appeal of the decision, the court with jurisdiction would be the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Jeneane Beck, a University of Iowa spokesperson, said the school intends to comply with the court decision, but declined to comment on appeal.
“The court has ordered the university to restore Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) to registered student organization status for 90 days,” Beck said. “The university respects the decision of the court and has acted accordingly by extending an invitation to BLinC to participate in the student organization fair on January 24. The university will not comment on the merits of the case per its policy on pending litigation.”