University of Iowa threatens religious liberty by expelling Christian group

By December 18, 2017

In a lawsuit filed last Monday in a federal court in Iowa, the Christian student organization Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) says that it has been dismissed from the University of Iowa’s (UI’s) campus for allegedly violating an anti-discrimination policy.

BLinC alleges that the university violated the First Amendment and the Iowa Human Rights Act. “The University’s decision to kick BLinC off campus was premeditated religious discrimination, plain and simple,” writes Becket, the public interest legal and educational institute representing the student organization.

Like the controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, this lawsuit raises important issues concerning religious liberty and freedom of association.   

The lawsuit alleges that last year, a gay member of BLinC was denied a leadership position in the organization due to his express “reject[ion] [of] BLinC’s religious beliefs and [statement that] he would not follow them.” The member filed a complaint with the university, contending that BLinC denied his request to pursue a leadership position in the organization because of his sexual orientation. The university subsequently launched an investigation into BLinC’s handling of the incident and ultimately revoked its status as an officially recognized student organization. The university demanded that BLinC “amend its Statement of Faith and submit an ‘acceptable plan’ for selecting its leaders,” or remain unrecognized. As an unrecognized student organization, BLinC is unable to reserve university facilities, receive funding, or utilize other benefits provided by the university.

BLinC’s statement of faith is intended to serve as a standard for its leadership in order to maintain its Christian identity. The statement reads:

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. 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.

In selecting its leaders, BLinC considers each candidate’s commitment to the Christian mission of the organization, acceptance of Jesus Christ as his or her savior, and belief in the Bible as the ultimate authority. In accordance with its advertised beliefs, BLinC rejected the member’s leadership application due to what it viewed as conduct inconsistent with its biblically-based views on sexual morality. In other words, BLinC alleges that its decision was based on the member’s beliefs, not his status as a gay man.

Becket argues that the university’s own policies and practices allow the group to employ exactly this sort of belief-based criteria in determining eligibility for leadership:

The University’s own policies expressly state that the University cannot stop religious groups from screening leaders based on their faith. And the University initially told BLinC that it could select leaders based on their commitment to its religious beliefs, so long as its beliefs were clearly identified so students would be aware. But after BLinC published its Statement of Faith online, the University said they were discriminating and kicked the group off campus.

The university’s website appears to reflect this. “It is the policy of the University,” UI’s website states, “that all registered student organizations be able to exercise free choice of members on the basis of their merits as individuals without restriction in accordance with the University Policy on Human Rights.” (Emphasis added.) The university even explicitly “acknowledges the interests of students to organize and associate with like-minded students, therefore any individual who subscribes to the goals and beliefs of a student organization may participate in and become a member of the organization.” (Emphasis added.) Further, the university maintains a number of statements affirming all students’ right to religious liberty.

However, the university also maintains a conflicting policy regarding access to student organizations: “The organization will guarantee that equal opportunity and equal access to membership, programming, facilities, and benefits shall be open to all persons.”

Obviously, this policy is not being applied to fraternities and sororities, and in practice, UI also appears to routinely permit student organizations to select leaders according to belief-based requirements. Several student groups which currently hold registered status at the university maintain leadership selection criteria strikingly similar to BLinC’s. Imam Mahdi, a Muslim student group, limits “full membership,” which includes leadership opportunities, to practicing Muslims who do “not work or act contrary to the tenets, or objectives of the organization, and display good moral character.” Similarly, Ratio Christi, a Christian group focused on cultivating and sharing the message of Jesus Christ, requires leaders to “profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and abstain from any conduct that would impair their ability to bear witness of their faith and serve the purposes of the organization.”

Secular student organizations at UI are also permitted to require their membership to subscribe to a set of shared beliefs before gaining admission or holding leadership positions. The Association of Latinos Moving Ahead limits membership and leadership opportunities to students who “support the purpose of the organization, and adhere to its objectives.” Likewise, the American Association of Women Dentists requires all members to “promote good fellowship and cooperation. . . and aid in the advancement and recognition of women in dentistry.”

These requirements make good sense. What would be the value of associating with like-minded people if groups are forced to consider for leadership those who hold views antithetical to the values of the organization? Such forced inclusion dilutes the expressive message of an organization, and may even threaten its existence. As Justice Alito explained in his dissent in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez:

[Public institutions subject to the First Amendment] surely could not demand that all Christian groups admit members who believe that Jesus was merely human. Jewish groups could not be required to admit anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. Muslim groups could not be forced to admit persons who are viewed as slandering Islam.

Just as FIRE argued in an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief submitted for the Supreme Court’s consideration in the Martinez case, forced acceptance of individuals with viewpoints antithetical to the core tenets of an organization as leaders violates the implicit right of freedom of association protected by the First Amendment. BLinC’s removal from the campus of a public university again poses the fundamental question surrounding freedom of association: May citizens form groups around shared interests and beliefs and advance such beliefs without governmental penalty?

Although this lawsuit has many similarities to Martinez, there are two key differences. First, UI maintains conflicting policies governing students organizations’ membership. As detailed above, one policy permits “free choice of members,” while another claims that membership access “shall be open to all persons.” However, in practice, UI seems to permit “free choice of membership” within its recognized student organizations, and certainly does not appear to force fraternities or sororities to accept members regardless of sex. In contrast, the standalone law school in Martinez purported to maintain a uniform “accept all comers” policy which mandated the acceptance of any interested student into the organization, period.

Second, this lawsuit poses a slightly different question than Martinez. Unlike the student organization in Martinez, which sought to completely exclude students from the organization based on inconsistent beliefs, BLinC seeks only to bar such students from leadership positions. The organization argues that “Bible studies, prayers, worship, and religious service would be hollow, inauthentic, and ultimately short-lived if [BLinC] did not require its leaders to share its basic organizational mission and guiding purpose.”

FIRE expressed concerns about the precarious state of religious liberty and freedom of association following the Supreme Court’s decision in Martinez. As FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff wrote at the time of the ruling, “the practical effect of this case will be the derecognition of devoutly religious groups.” Unfortunately, the derecognition of BLinC at the University of Iowa is another example of this prediction coming to fruition. We hope the district court recognizes the threat to freedom of association alleged in this complaint, and chooses to protect that First Amendment right. Regardless of the outcome, FIRE will continue to protect and defend the expressive, religious, and associational liberties of students across the nation.

Schools: University of Iowa