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Court rules for religious student group in clash between LGBTQ, religious rights

The Iowa Memorial Union at the University of Iowa, shown in August 2015.
The Iowa Memorial Union at the University of Iowa, shown in August 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — A Christian student group accused of anti-LGBTQ discrimination has had its day in court and won.

The U.S. District Court in Davenport, Iowa, said in its ruling Wednesday that while it's laudable for university leaders to seek to end discrimination, they can't trample on the rights of conservative religious students in the process.

"This case underscores the importance of pursuing the best-intentioned policies in an even-handed manner," wrote Judge Stephanie M. Rose.

The case centered on the University of Iowa's treatment of Business Leaders in Christ, a student organization for people of faith seeking business careers. The group requires its leaders to affirm that marriage is reserved for unions of one man and one woman and that an individual's God-given sex is unalterable.

In 2017, a gay student reported this leadership requirement to university officials, arguing that Business Leaders in Christ had discriminated against him. The University of Iowa determined the group violated the school's human rights policy and revoked its status, banning it from advertising at student organization fairs, receiving student government funding or holding meetings in campus buildings.

"The University of Iowa respects the rights of students, faculty and staff to practice the religion of their choice," said Anne Bassett, the university's media relations director, in a 2017 statement. "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."

The Iowa Old Capitol Building, now part of the University of Iowa campus, is the original Iowa state capitol.
The Iowa Old Capitol Building, now part of the University of Iowa campus, is the original Iowa state capitol.

Business Leaders in Christ sued the University of Iowa in the fall of 2017 with the help of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a prominent religious liberty law firm. The case claimed school leaders were singling out a religious group for punishment while allowing other political and social clubs to impose similar leadership requirements.

"Fraternities and sororities can limit membership to men and women respectively. Pro-choice groups can reject students who are pro-life and vice versa," noted a Becket press release at the time.

In this week's ruling, Judge Rose agreed that the university's inconsistent application of its human rights policy is a problem.

"There is no fault to be found with the policy itself. But the Constitution does not tolerate the way (the university) chose to enforce the human rights policy," she wrote.

Business Leaders in Christ members and Becket described the ruling as a win for free speech and religious freedom.

"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," said Jake Estell, a member of the group, in a statement.

The ruling ensures Business Leaders in Christ can access campus resources moving forward. However, it does little to solve ongoing clashes between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom, Judge Rose noted in her ruling.

"The court suspects that some observers will portray this case as a fundamental conflict between nondiscrimination laws and religious liberty. Appealing as that may be, it overinflates the issues before the court," she wrote.

In other words, the ruling won't prevent the University of Iowa from deregistering faith-based student groups in the future. School officials would just need to be more consistent in applying human rights standards.

In this sense, the outcome in the case is similar to the Supreme Court's decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Right Commission, which asked whether a Christian baker can refuse provide services for a same-sex wedding. The Supreme Court ruled that the commission had been unfair in its treatment of the Christian baker, but did not answer the broader question about what takes precedence when religious freedom and LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections are in conflict, the Deseret News reported in June.

A spokesperson for the University of Iowa said the school is reviewing the court's ruling and will follow the court order. Moving forward, the university's treatment of religious student groups will continue to be scrutinized by Becket and other religious freedom advocates.

"As a government body bound by the First Amendment, the university should have never tried to get into the game of playing favorites in the first place, and it is high time for it to stop now," said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel for Becket, in a statement.

Already, the school has tried to adjust its enforcement of the human rights policy, which led to the deregistration of more than 30 additional groups last summer, many of them religious. A second lawsuit tied to that decision is still ongoing.