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Appeals Court Says Univ. of Iowa Discriminated Against Religious Groups, Violated First Amendment

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An appeals court ruled Friday that the University of Iowa discriminated against Christian student groups over the methods used to select group members and leaders.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Intervarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship filed a lawsuit against UI after school administrators deregistered them. The groups said the university targeted them for requiring student leaders to sign a statement of faith.

"What the university did here was clearly unconstitutional," according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. "It targeted religious groups for differential treatment under the human rights policy while carving out exemptions and ignoring other violative groups with missions they presumably supported."

The court determined that UI and other defendants, including former UI President Bruce Harreld and former UI Vice President of Student Life Melissa Shivers, "turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence or they proceeded full speed ahead knowing they were violating the law." 

Circuit Judge Jonathan A. Kobes wrote that he was "hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination."

Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket law firm noted that, "Schools are supposed to be a place of free inquiry and open thought, but the school officials here punished opinions they didn't like and promoted ones they did - all while using taxpayer dollars to do it."

In an email, UI spokeswoman, Anne Bassett, said the university "respects the decision of the court and will move forward in accordance with the decision." 

The ruling is one of several cases against universities that have been sued for discrimination against religious student clubs.

CBN News reported in April that a federal court ruled against Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan for violating the rights of the school's religious students, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. 

The court found that the school's actions to force religious groups to accept leaders "who may be hostile to their religious tenets" was wrong and a "strike at the heart" of the First Amendment: "No religious group can constitutionally be made an outsider, excluded from equal access to public or university life, simply because it insists on religious leaders who believe in its cause."

Because the university's actions were "obviously odious to the Constitution," the court held the school's administration officials personally liable for violating the rights of the school's religious students. 

And in March, a federal appeals court found UI responsible for kicking a Christian student club off campus because of its faith.

Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC, a student group at the school, said the university took aim at them simply for requiring student leaders to affirm the Christian faith. 

The university claimed this was a violation of its nondiscrimination policy, even though it allowed other religious groups to select faith-compliant leaders and openly encouraged other groups—like fraternities and sororities—to select leaders based on certain characteristics covered by the nondiscrimination policy. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of the BLinC, recognizing the selective enforcement of the school's policy violated the First Amendment. 

"The good news is that they've been held accountable, and school officials nationwide are on notice," said Blomberg. "We are optimistic that in the future, colleges will pursue policies of accommodation, not discrimination when it comes to religious exercise on campus."

He added, "Religious groups should be able to have religious leaders. Government officials don't get to tell Christians, Muslims, or Sikhs who will lead their prayers or their worship. That's not just bedrock constitutional law, it's also common sense. And now the University of Iowa knows it."  

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