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Iowa Pays $1.9M for Violating Religious Liberty, Free Speech Rights of University Christian Clubs

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A state panel agreed Monday to spend nearly $2 million to settle two federal lawsuits brought against the University of Iowa in 2017 for kicking some Christian groups off campus.

Two payments amounting to $1.93 million will be made to The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit religious rights law firm, for their successful representation of two Christian student groups that sued the university for violating their religious liberty. 

Becket attorneys representing Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) were awarded $1.37 million in fees and costs for litigating the 2017 case. A second student group, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, also won their federal court case filed in 2018 and will be paid $20,000 in damages. Roughly $513,000 in attorney fees will go to Becket for that case.

The Iowa State Appeal Board approved the court-ordered settlements, which were negotiated between the university and the plaintiffs in both cases and approved by a federal judge. Monday's approval by the State Appeal Board authorizes the state to make the payments.

Both cases stem from actions the University of Iowa took after a gay student said he was turned down for a leadership role in the BLinC because he would not accept the group's position that marriage must be between only a man and a woman. 

After the student alleged violations of his civil rights, the university reviewed student organizations' compliance with civil rights and began delisting some organizations that school officials said failed to comply.

The two Christian groups were delisted and then sued the university. Both won judgments that the university had violated their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The university appealed but the lower court decisions were upheld by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

As CBN News reported in March, the federal appeals court found UI responsible for kicking the BLinC off campus because of its faith. The group 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 appellate court ruled in favor of the BLinC, saying the selective enforcement of the school's policy violated the First Amendment. 

Later in July, the 8th Circuit Court ruled the university 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 in 2018. The groups said the university targeted them for requiring student leaders to sign a statement of faith.

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." 

"What the university did here was clearly unconstitutional," the 8th Circuit Court had said in its decision. "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."

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

On Monday, Iowa Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson recommended to the board approval of payment.

"In our judgment this is the simplest and most efficient way to get cases like this resolved," he said. "We believe that this process was reasonable and (in) both cases we have a judgment from a federal district court judge and a final judgment as to the fees and damages."

In March 2019, Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law that requires state universities and community colleges to adopt policies that prohibit them from denying benefits to a student organization based on the viewpoint of the group. 

"In addition, a public institution of higher education shall not deny any benefit or privilege to a student organization based on the student organization's requirement that the leaders of the student organization agree to and support the student organization's beliefs, as those beliefs are interpreted and applied by the organization, and to further the student organization's mission," the law reads.

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