Judge Rules University Engaged in ‘Viewpoint Discrimination’ by Penalizing Christian Club Over its Leadership Criteria

IOWA CITY, Iowa — While calling the matter “a close call,” a federal judge appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama has ruled that the University of Iowa “unevenly” enforced its human rights policy when it de-recognized the Christian group Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) for not allowing a student to serve in a leadership position because he refused to adhere to the group’s biblical beliefs as they pertain to sexuality, but permitted other groups to have specific requirements for leaders.

“The court sees no appreciable difference in the potential harms caused by BLinC and those caused by the various RSOs (recognized student organizations) that are permitted to limit leadership or membership based on protected characteristics. Those other groups also hinder diversity and equal access to educational opportunities,” wrote U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose on Wednesday.

She noted that other groups were allowed to have certain criteria for their leaders without adverse consequences—even one religious group that supports homosexuality—but BLinC was de-recognized because of the standards it set based on its view that homosexual behavior is sinful. This demonstrates unfair and uneven enforcement, she opined.

“[T]he undisputed evidence shows BLinC was prevented from expressing its viewpoints on protected characteristics while other student groups ‘espousing another viewpoint [were] permitted to do so,'” Rose outlined.

“The university allows Love Works to limit leadership to individuals who share its religious beliefs on homosexuality. But BLinC may not. It allows groups, such as [the women’s singing group] Hawkapellas and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, to limit leadership based on protected traits in violation of the human rights policy. But BLinC may not,” she observed. “That is viewpoint discrimination.”

As previously reported, BLinC had sued the University of Iowa in December after officials concluded that the group had violated its human rights policy and had discriminated against the student, who wanted to serve as vice president of the Christian group.

“[I]n no aspect of [the university’s] programs shall there be differences in the treatment of persons because of  … sexual orientation,” the policy reads in part.

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BLinC believes it has not violated the policy because it does not prevent a person from serving in leadership solely based on their particular temptation, or “orientation,” but rather when the individual rejects the group’s teachings and willingly and unrepentantly indulges in sin.

The organization’s statement of faith outlines that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and a wife in the lifelong covenant of marriage. Every other sexual relationship beyond this is outside of God’s design and is not in keeping with God’s original plan for humanity.” Students who do not adhere to these and other beliefs are welcome as members, but cannot hold leadership positions.

Leaders are responsible for presiding over the group in prayer and holding regular Bible studies, as well as to make decisions such as inviting area Christian business owners to speak to BLinC.

In March 2106, a male member approached one of the leaders of the group to advise that he was interested in serving as vice president. He was then asked about his walk with Christ to determine whether or not he would be able to provide spiritual leadership to BLinC.

During the discussion, the student disclosed that he was struggling to reconcile his feelings toward the same sex with his profession of faith. The two then looked at Scriptures regarding what the Bible has to say about God’s boundaries for sexual behavior, and prayed together. The student was also advised that the group’s executive board would have to decide whether or not he would be eligible for a leadership position.

The board returned a decision that leaders must agree with the teachings of the Bible and be willing to turn from any conduct that the Scriptures state are sinful. It expressed concern that the student did not appear open to refraining from acting on his temptations toward the same sex.

A BLinC leader then asked the student if he would adhere to the group’s beliefs regarding sexual conduct, and he advised that he conversely intended on seeking out a same-sex relationship.

He was consequently advised that such a decision would prohibit him from serving in leadership because it conflicted with the organization’s biblical morals. It was also outlined to the student that he was not being denied the position simply because of his homosexual inclinations, but because he willfully intended to act on them rather than following the Bible as a professing Christian.

The student soon filed a complaint with the university, stating that he was being discriminated against because he was “openly gay” and requested that the group either be forced to allow homosexual leaders or that their registration status be revoked.

University officials investigated the matter and concluded that BLinC was in violation of the school’s human rights policy. One official asked that the group put its beliefs in writing, and in doing so, to make it clear that BLinC does not discriminate based on one’s so-called “sexual orientation.” BLinC therefore submitted a statement of faith (part of which is outlined above), and noted that prospective leaders would be required to sign an affirmation.

“As I hold an executive position with Business Leaders in Christ, I commit to live a life in which I turn from my sin and actively choose the biblical principles of godly sanctification and righteousness,” it reads. “If and when I misstep, I will confess my struggle to God and to a member of the Business Leaders in Christ executive board acknowledging that I choose to receive grace and forgiveness from God and from others, and turn from my sin.”

However, the statement of faith was still deemed to be discriminatory by officials and the group was asked to make further changes. As BLinC chose not to change its requirement prohibiting leaders from purposefully and willfully living in sin, the group’s status was revoked and an appeal was rejected.

The University of Iowa’s decision to revoke official recognition of the student group meant that it would no longer be allowed to use university facilities and would not be entitled to any funding.

BLinC therefore took the matter to the courts, requesting an immediate reprieve so it could participate in the student organization fair on Jan. 24, from which it would otherwise be excluded. On Jan. 23, Judge Rose issued a temporary injunction, concluding that while the university’s human rights policy was on its face permissible, it had not been equally applied.

She agreed with evidence presented by BLinC that a student group known as Imam Mahdi requires its leaders to be Muslim, and more specifically, Shiea.

“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 wrote.

In issuing her final ruling on Wednesday, Rose said that while there is “no fault to be found with the policy itself, … the Constitution does not tolerate the way [the university] chose to enforce the human rights policy.”

“The court is also not convinced that revoking BLinC’s registration was narrowly tailored to promote the university’s stated interests in its RSO program and human rights policy,” she wrote. “… Defendants have failed to satisfy their strict scrutiny burden. Accordingly, Defendants have violated BLinC’s First Amendment rights to free speech, expressive association, and free exercise of religion.”

Rose prohibited the university from enforcing the policy against the Christian student group, under the conditions that BLinC does not change its statement of faith and leadership selection policies—since they statedly “do not discriminate based on status” as so-called sexual orientation is not a leadership disqualifier in and of itself, and thus they “do not, on their own, violate the human rights policy.” The stipulation also remains as long as the university continues to allow other groups to have exceptions to the rule.

However, Rose emphasized that “the injunction does not grant BLinC a special exemption if the university applies the human rights policy in a manner permitted by the Constitution.”

Read the ruling in full here.

“We are grateful the court protected our rights today—to let us have the same right as all student groups to express our viewpoints freely on campus, and to be who we are,” Jake Estell of BLinC remarked in a statement. “This victory reinforces the commonsense idea that universities can’t target religious student groups for being religious.”

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