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Judge forces University of Iowa to recognize Christian student group on same terms as Muslim group

Obvious ‘selective enforcement,’ and process is not ‘complaint-driven’ as claimed

The University of Iowa derecognized a Christian student group because it required leaders to abide by “sexual moral conduct” rules.

Now a federal judge has ordered the taxpayer-funded institution to treat Business Leaders in Christ the same as it treats a registered Muslim student club.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose told the university Tuesday to immediately reinstate BLC so it could participate in a “spring recruitment fair” Wednesday that it deemed essential for its continued viability on campus.

The university’s “human rights policy” is at issue in BLC’s lawsuit. It contends the university tricked it into clarifying its club constitution so that the administration would have a pretext to derecognize the club as discriminating against potential club leaders based on sexual orientation.

Rose found that the registration of student clubs is a “limited public forum” – a question she said neither party addressed – and the university’s requirement of adherence to the human rights policy was “reasonable in light of the intended purpose” of club registration.

But she agreed with BLC that the university “has not consistently applied the policy and thus the
policy should not be regarded as viewpoint neutral in its application.”

BLC said the university previously allowed a group with similar leadership requirements, the Christian Legal Society, to remain registered.

An administrator’s interactions with CLS in 2003 and 2004 “contradict the University’s claim at the hearing that it only reviews student organization constitutions when a complaint has been filed,” Rose said: “There is no evidence that CLS’s student organization was the subject of any complaint,” as was BLC.

She also noted that Students for Life, the Korean American Student Association and Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance “are permitted to organize around their missions and beliefs,” as BLC noted, “though it cannot.”

MOREU. Iowa derecognizes Christian club because of ‘sexual moral conduct’ rules

The university’s treatment of the Imam Mahdi organization is damning, according to Rose:

The organization’s constitution lists qualifications for membership. For full membership in the organization, an individual must be eighteen years or older and “[b]e Muslim, Shiea, and obtain the recommendation of two Members.” … “The reason behind the recommendation is to be sure that the person who desires to join this organization as a full member[] is Muslim, Shiea, who respects the religion rules, and willing to practice the faith.” …

The University does not appear to have taken any action with respect to Imam Mahdi, despite its clear violation of the University’s Human Rights Policy. At the hearing, Defendants’ only response was that the process is “complaint-driven.” The University’s registration policy and the established facts of the episode with CLS refute that contention.

Imam Mahdi clearly approves full members “based upon at least one protected classification—that of religion,” Rose said, which shows “on the current record” that the university “does not consistently and equally apply its Human Rights Policy:

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.

This is “selective enforcement,” and BLC has a “fair chance of prevailing” on its claim under the First Amendment’s free speech clause, she said.

The Supreme Court has established that losing First Amendment freedoms “for even minimal periods of time” constitutes “irreparable harm,” Rose said.

BLC will be so harmed by losing access to the benefits of registered groups, including reimbursement for its expenditures, visibility on the student organizations website and participation in the recruitment fair.

The university can’t seriously argue that an injunction in BLC’s favor will “expos[e] members of the student body to discrimination,” since BLC is small and just one of more than 500 student organizations, Rose said.

She ordered the university to reinstate BLC for 90 days, after which the student club can “seek further action as necessary” and the university can explain “any changes to the enforcement of its Human Rights Policy to registered student organizations.”

BLC’s lawyers at the religious liberty firm Becket said it expects a Rose decision “later this year” that lets BLC “permanently” stay registered “and pick leaders who embrace its faith.”

Senior counsel Eric Baxter said: “Every other group on campus gets to select leaders who embrace their mission. Religious groups don’t get second-class treatment.”

Read the lawsuit and Becket statement.

MORE: Jewish students threatened by University of Iowa’s rules

MOREChristian clubs drop Christian requirement to get back into Cal State

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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