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Lawsuit claims university protects LGBT students by punishing religious ones

SALT LAKE CITY — Later this month, leaders from the University of Iowa's many student groups will descend on the Iowa Memorial Union, seeking to attract new members with flashy posters and free candy.

Business Leaders in Christ, a student group serving people of faith pursuing careers in the business world, may not be there. It's been deregistered by university officials because of its statement of faith.

To be eligible for leadership positions in the group, members must affirm that sexual relationships are reserved for heterosexual marriage and that people should embrace their God-given sex. University of Iowa officials say this constitutes unlawful discrimination against LGBT students, so they cut off the group's access to school funds and facilities.

"They're saying the statement of faith is inappropriate," said Eric Baxter, senior counsel for Becket, the religious liberty-focused law firm representing the student group in its ongoing federal court lawsuit against the school over the university's decision.

Oral arguments took place on Thursday. Becket asked the judge to weigh in on the case before Iowa's spring student organization fair on Jan. 24.

University officials don't want to debate theology. They're focused on creating a safe campus environment, not restricting religious freedom, according to a brief filed Jan. 5 in the U.S. District Court in Davenport, Iowa.

"Iowa has a compelling interest to prohibit discrimination (based) on factors such as sexual orientation or other immutable traits," it reads.

But what about discrimination based on religion? Like sexual orientation, religious beliefs are a protected characteristic on campus and in the state of Iowa. The school shouldn't defend LGBT students at the expense of students of faith, critics say.

The case illustrates faith's unique status within lists of protected traits, said Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religious studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. When religious beliefs cause conflict, they're often mistakenly seen as something that can and should change.

"I think people overestimate the mutability of faith," he said.

Addressing discrimination

Conservative Christian student groups have come under fire repeatedly in recent decades. At first, public universities were worried about appearing to give special treatment to certain faiths, but today the focus is more often on how religious groups treat others, said Kim Colby, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law & Religious Freedom.

"After the Supreme Court ruled a couple of times that the establishment clause didn't justify singling out religious groups for poor treatment, universities shifted to nondiscrimination policies as the reason for excluding religious student groups," she said.

The Business Leaders in Christ conflict began when a student filed a complaint against the group in February 2017, asserting that he'd been barred from seeking a leadership position because he's an openly gay man. University officials asked group leaders to outline their policies and religious beliefs, which include conservative Christian teachings on sexual morality.

Officials determined that Business Leaders in Christ violated the University of Iowa's Human Rights Policy and the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which are similar to other nondiscrimination policies and laws across the country. They guard against prejudice based on a set of protected characteristics, including race, sexual orientation and religion.

"The university is guided by the precepts that in no aspects of its programs shall there be differences in the treatment of persons because of race, creed, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, disability, genetic information, status as a U.S. veteran, service in the U.S. military, sexual orientation, gender identity, associational preferences, or any other classification that deprives the person of consideration as an individual," the university's policy reads.

Colby's issue with this finding, as well as other recent instances of religious student groups being penalized for their beliefs, is that it punishes people of faith with a statute that's meant to protect them.

"The irony is that these universities have nondiscrimination policies that have always, in theory, protected religious student groups. To be using those policies to exclude religious student groups is a misuse of them," she said.

It's a complicated situation, mirroring other debates over what to do when religious freedom protections clash with LGBT rights. For example, the Supreme Court is currently considering if it's possible to protect both a Christian baker who objects to same-sex weddings and an LGBT couple who wanted him to create their wedding cake.

Anne Bassett, the University of Iowa's media relations director, said in a statement that the school champions religious freedom but cannot allow school funds to support anti-LGBT discrimination.

"The University of Iowa respects the rights of students, faculty and staff to practice the religion of their choice," she said. "However, when a voluntary student organization chooses to become a registered student organization, it must adhere to the mission of the university, the UI's policies and procedures, and all local, state and federal laws."

Identities in conflict

Like the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case, Business Leaders in Christ v. University of Iowa tests the limits of religious freedom. Those who support the school's position argue that protections for people of faith cannot excuse harm done to members of the LGBT community.

Barring gays and lesbians from leadership positions represents "exclusion and discrimination based on someone's sexual orientation, based on who they are," said Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, executive director of One Iowa, an organization that advocates on behalf of members of the LGBT community.

But members of Business Leaders in Christ are also suffering because of who they are, Baxter argued, adding that a statement of faith shouldn't be up for negotiation.

"Our clients (told university officials) they couldn't change their religious beliefs or have an organization with leaders who don't support their beliefs," he said.

Personal faith is affected by a perception problem that doesn't apply to protected characteristics like race or age, Levinovitz said. Unpopular religious beliefs are seen as something that can be dropped, and not a core part of a conservative Christian's identity.

"When a nonreligious person hears a belief that's traumatic to them, they think, 'These people are crazy! Surely they can stop being so crazy,'" he said.

This type of reaction is not new, but it's become more common as conservative Christianity, in general, has lost support, Levinovitz noted. Americans today are more sensitive to slights against members of the LGBT community and other groups that fought against discrimination for decades.

"I think there is, generally speaking, more consideration for identities that are understood to have been historically marginalized," he said.

Room for everyone

Levinovitz has wrestled with people's assumptions about religious beliefs throughout his career, trying to articulate how faith relates to an individual's core self. He's focused on the loss of friendships and family relationships that can accompany a religious switch, noting that faith is more than a set of memorized beliefs.

In spite of this work, Levinovitz said it's not necessarily a bad thing for religious students to be challenged to defend their beliefs, although he doesn't like that these confrontations sometimes end up in a courtroom. Campus life should include opportunities for students to reflect on who they are and what they believe.

"If you bring a deep commitment to your faith to campus, they should be treated like other deep commitments. It's part of the university's role to challenge that," he said.

Challenges might come in the form of a conversation with a student from a different background or a heated classroom debate. University officials have the difficult task of creating an environment where healthy disagreements can happen, Levinovitz added.

"I think what administrators need to do is figure out how to keep campuses feeling like places where everyone can express their opinion and be themselves," he said.

In their recent court filing, University of Iowa leaders presented their deregistration of Business Leaders in Christ as part of this work, noting that they acted out of concern for LGBT students.

"Iowa has a legitimate interest in preventing and prohibiting acts of discrimination against individuals," the brief said.

However, this interest shouldn't outweigh it's responsibility to religious students, Baxter said.

"Universities should welcome diverse views and people challenging each other's ideas," he noted.