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University of Iowa denies religious student organizations are ‘on probation’ in discrimination suit

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Law firm for Christian students ‘blatantly misrepresented the facts and documentation’

Lawsuits against the University of Iowa for discriminating against Christian student groups have led to some surprising results.

The taxpayer-funded university responded to a judge’s ruling in favor of Business Leaders in Christ by derecognizing all religious clubs that do not open membership and leadership to everyone, including students who oppose their missions.

It later admitted in that litigation that it exempts nonreligious clubs from its open-access rules for various reasons, including to provide a “safe space.” Another Christian student club, InterVarsity, filed for summary judgment based on the university’s response to Business Leaders in Christ.

The public university’s latest faux pas was disclosed in court Friday, during oral argument, in the Business Leaders in Christ lawsuit.

The student group’s lawyers at Becket said the judge had demanded that the administration “identify all groups it had deregistered late last year and the reasons why.” The university turned over a list of nearly 600 student groups, sorted by which were in compliance with its rules.

Thirty-two groups are marked “STOPPED, PENDING LITIGATION.” According to Becket, that means they are on “probationary status.”

All are religious in nature.

MORE: U. Iowa deregisters dozens of religious clubs to spite Christians

They include the Agape Chinese Student Fellowship, Chabad Jewish Student Association, Christian Medical Association, Hillel, Imam Mahdi Organization, J. Reuben Clark Law Society, Latter-day Saint Student Association, Muslim Students Association, Newman Catholic Student Center, Orthodox Christian Fellowship, Sikh Awareness Club, and a Christian ministry called “The Salt Company.”

While targeting solely religious student groups, “the university admitted that it still grants full registered status to dozens of secular groups, which explicitly restrict or control access to leadership or membership based on race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and U.S. military service,” Becket wrote in a press release Tuesday.

Senior Counsel Eric Baxter said the “blatant double-standard” applied to religious groups, “while ignoring dozens of other bigger groups who engage in more so-called ‘discrimination,’ is doublethink that would make the Ministry of Truth blush.”

The administration disputed Becket’s characterization of the 32 student groups in an email to The College Fix Tuesday afternoon.

It said that Becket “blatantly misrepresented the facts and documentation” it turned over in court Friday:

All religious organizations remain in registered status while the court decides, and ultimately directs, the university on how it should address the conflict that currently exists between the First Amendment and the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

The university agreed with counsel for BLinC and InterVarsity to place the review of religious organization constitutions on hold once the InterVarsity lawsuit was filed against the university [in August] with the understanding that plaintiffs’ counsel would not file any further lawsuits Pertaining [sic] to this issue pending the decision by the court in BLinC.

The religious and faith-based groups still retain “full access to all benefits, funding, facilities, and resources that are offered to all other student organizations on campus” while the litigation proceeds, meaning the university “has not placed any religious student organization on ‘probationary status'” as claimed by Becket.

MORE: Judge orders U. Iowa to treat Christian groups same as Muslim groups

Baxter, the Becket lawyer, defended the “probationary status” language that the university disputes in a phone call with The Fix Tuesday.

The only thing protecting the religious student groups from derecognition is the ongoing litigation, so their registered status is only “temporary” if the university wins, Baxter said. As for the myriad nonreligious student organizations with leadership requirements, “none of those groups have ever had their leadership rules questioned,” and their status remains secure.

“The university is only looking at the religious organizations in the first place” – except for one, Love Works, whose status has not been questioned, Baxter said. Love Works is a Christian ministry that requires leaders to “stand with ‘LGBTQ+’ persons who have been rejected by other faith communities.”

The Trump administration cited the university’s selective tolerance of Love Works when it filed a statement of interest siding with Business Leaders in Christ.

Baxter also disputed the university’s claimed “conflict” between the First Amendment and Iowa Civil Rights Act, which has a religious exemption. Even if they were in conflict, “the First Amendment wins” by default, Baxter said: University administrators are “the ones who are confusing all of these issues.”

Read the list of student organizations and Becket release.

UPDATE: The University of Iowa contacted The Fix after this post was published to challenge Becket’s characterization of the status of the 32 religious student groups. The headline and subhead have been altered in light of the university’s response. Becket lawyer Eric Baxter defended the law firm’s phrasing in a subsequent phone call with The Fix. His comments have been added.

MORE: U. Iowa admits it exempts race-based clubs to give them ‘safe space’

IMAGE: Prazis Images/Shutterstock

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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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