Federal court of appeals sides with Christian student group in a case against the University of Iowa

In 2017 the University of Iowa dismantled a student group called Business Leaders in Christ after a student filed a discrimination complaint on the basis of sexual oreintation.

BLinC sued the University for violating their First Amendment rights and the Federal Court of Appeals has now ruled in their favor and denied qualified immunity for the individual defendants.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a previous district court decision to grant qualified immunity to individuals at the University of Iowa who violated a student organization’s First Amendment rights.

Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) is a Registered Student Organization at the University of Iowa that was founded in 2014 by students at the Tippie College of Business. In 2017 Marcus Miller, a student and former member of BLinC, filed a discrimination complaint with the University and “stated that BLinC denied him a leadership position because he was ‘openly gay,” according to the decision.

This complaint came after Miller expressed interest in taking on a leadership position within the group and told the former president that he was gay during an interview. Members of BLinC then “expressed concern about Miller not sharing BLinC’s views on the Bible’s sexual conduct teachings.” (pg. 7)

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Constance Shriver Cervantes, the University Compliance Coordinator for the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, and Thomas Baker, the former Associate Dean of Students, were tasked with investigating Miller’s complaint.

The investigation led to the dismantling of the group on the grounds that BLinC violated the University’s “Human Rights Policy” and “denied Miller a leadership position because he was gay,” according to the decision.

Following this action, the Business Leaders in Christ filed a suit alleging that the Human Rights Policy violated the groups First Amendment rights.

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Baker is one of the defendants on the case, as well as the University of Iowa, Lyn Redington, Dean of Students, and William R. Nelson, Executive Director of the Iowa Memorial Union.

According to the decision, the district court sided with BLinC, stating that the university violated the group’s First Amendment rights.

“The district court held that University defendants violated BLinC’s First Amendment rights to free speech, expressive association, and free exercise of religion.” The student organization was subsequently granted permanent injunctive relief which prohibits the “defendants from enforcing the Human Rights Policy against BLinC under certain conditions.”

The Court of Appeals ruled that the “district court erred in granting qualified immunity to the individual defendants on BLinC’s free-speech and expressive-association claims; however, it correctly granted qualified immunity to the individual defendants on BLinC’s free-exercise claim.”

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Judge Jonathan Allen Kobes stated in the ruling that, “the purpose of qualified immunity is to shield good-faith actors who make mistaken judgments about unresolved issues of law, and it protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’”

“The undisputed evidence show[ed] BLinC was prevented from expressing its viewpoints on protected characteristics while other student groups ‘espousing another viewpoint [were] permitted to do so,’” the court document states.

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The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that “the university defendants have not appealed the district court’s holding that they violated BLinC’s First Amendment rights to free speech, expressive association, and free exercise through their disparate application of the University’s Human Rights Policy. Instead, the focus of this appeal is limited to whether, for purposes of qualified immunity, the law was clearly established that the individual defendants’ conduct violated those rights.” (pg. 15)

Judge Kobes, “concurring in part and dissenting in part,” argued that “the law is clear: state organizations may not target religious groups for differential treatment or withhold an otherwise available benefit solely because they are religious.” He further explained that the individual defendants “are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution. Either way, they should not get qualified immunity.”

Campus Reform reached out to the University of Iowa for comment, but did not receive a response.