Iowa University Officials Denied Immunity for Targeting Christian Student Group

March 23, 2021 Updated: March 23, 2021

University of Iowa administrators can be held personally accountable for denying official recognition to a Christian students group because of its faith-based leadership policy, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

A panel of three circuit judges ruled in favor of Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), holding that the university officials do not enjoy qualified immunity—a legal shield protecting public officials from individual liability unless they violate a “clearly established” constitutional right—because they violated at least the student group’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association.

The case stemmed from 2017, when BLinC barred a member from serving in a leading position after he came out as gay and refused to “forgo romantic same-sex relationships” in accordance to the group’s interpretation of biblical teachings.

The student filed a complaint with the University of Iowa alleging that he was discriminated against for being openly gay, while BLinC argued that the decision was made because of his disagreement to “live by [the group’s] religious beliefs,” not because of his homosexuality.

The university eventually stripped BLinC’s status as a registered students organization, saying that the group failed to comply with the university’s human rights policy by barring students based on their sexual orientation and religion. The action denied the group access to university funding and campus resources.

In 2019, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose, an Obama appointee, found that the university had unevenly enforced its nondiscrimination policy by punishing BLinC, while allowing other campus groups to limit membership based on race, sex, and religion.

Rose also ruled that the university officials had qualified immunity and therefore could not be ordered to pay damages sought by BLinC, a decision with which the Eighth Circuit disagreed.

“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,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Lavenski Smith, a Bush appointee, wrote in the majority opinion. “We hold that the district court erroneously granted the individual defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity on BLinC’s free-speech and expressive-association claims.”

The majority added that the district court did not err in granting qualified immunity to the defendants on BLinC’s free-exercise claim, because “the law was not clearly established” at the time they conducted the violation.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jonathan Kobes, a Trump appointee, partially dissented with the majority, saying that the university officials should be liable for their free-exercise violation as well.

“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,” Kobes wrote. “That is what happened here. The individual defendants may pick their poison: they are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution. Either way, they should not get qualified immunity.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal group representing the students, said they welcome the Monday decision.

“University of Iowa officials knew this was wrong, and they did it anyway,” said Eric Baxter, vice president at the Washington-based non-profit organization. “We’re pleased to have the court recognize that blatant religious discrimination brings personal consequences.”