‘They are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution’
In a big win for religious freedom on college campuses, an appeals court has ruled that University of Iowa officials can be held personally liable for targeting a Christian club on campus.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled Monday that administrators can be held responsible for engaging in unconstitutional conduct against the campus group Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC.
“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,” the ruling states.
“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.”
The appeals court ruled that a lower court had erred in granting three University of Iowa officials qualified immunity on BLinC’s free-speech and expressive-association claims. It did grant qualified immunity to campus officials on BLinC’s free-exercise claim, however.
The ruling means these campus officials may have to pay monetary damages to the Christian group.
“The decision sends the case back to a lower court for additional proceedings, including a determination of what damages they should face,” the Associated Press reports.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Business Leaders in Christ, celebrated the ruling.
“BLinC takes good students and makes them better by strengthening their resolve to remain true to their moral compass in the cutthroat business world,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, in a news release.
“Any wise university would be thrilled to have them on campus, but the University of Iowa tried hounding them off instead. Fortunately, the First Amendment protects their right to remain on campus on the same terms as every other student group,” Baxter said.
James Freeman of The Wall Street Journal predicts the ruling should make the Iowa campus “and perhaps universities nationwide more tolerant when it comes to belief.”
In 2017, University of Iowa officials had first denied Business Leaders in Christ the right to choose leaders that uphold its views on biblical sexuality. The university then derecognized many more religious groups after a judge had ordered it to treat all student groups equally with regard to the policy.
In 2019, a judge issued a permanent injunction against the university’s unequal enforcement of its policy that blocked Business Leaders in Christ from choosing its leadership.
It was unequal enforcement because administrators had issued many exemptions to that policy for secular groups, including racial minorities and Greek life.
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