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University of Iowa Officials Liable for First Amendment Violations

The University of Iowa and numerous employees are liable to a religious student organization for discrimination in violation of the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and freedom of association. A Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of a trial court to hold the University of Iowa and several of its officials liable for violating the First Amendment rights of the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship. Like many universities, Iowa has a Human Rights Policy forbidding discrimination. To be registered and receive associated benefits, student organizations (RSOs) must not discriminate on the basis of traits listed in the Policy. However, RSOs may hinge membership and leadership on sex (such as fraternities and sororities) or military service or religious beliefs.

In 2017, a student was denied a leadership role in Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) because he refused to affirm the organization's religious belief opposing same-sex relationships. The University deregistered BLinC, and later lost in court. While that case was pending, the University decided to review all RSO constitutions to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Policy, specifically starting with religious groups. During that review, the University deregistered InterVarsity because it requires leadership (not members) to affirm its religious statement of faith. InterVarsity sued.

While the InterVarsity suit was pending, the district court granted summary judgment to BLinC and the appellate court affirmed. The University eventually reinstated InterVarsity, but its lawsuit continued. In holding the University liable, the trial court and the appellate court noted that the University allowed numerous other groups to discriminate against members or leaders by requiring adherence to specific sets of beliefs. "[T]he University started a compliance review that prioritized religious organizations. That review led to InterVarsity’s deregistration, along with other religious groups. The University’s fervor dissipated, however, once they finished with religious RSOs. Sororities and fraternities got exemptions from the Human Rights Policy. Other groups were permitted to base membership on sex, race, veteran status, and even some religious beliefs."

In sum, the Court declared, "We are hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination. . . . The University focused its 'clean up' on specific religious groups and then selectively applied the Human Rights Policy against them. Other groups were simply glossed over or ignored." Given the clear Supreme Court and circuit precedent disapproving of viewpoint discrimination, either "[t]he University and individual defendants turned a blind eye to decades of First Amendment jurisprudence or they proceeded full speed ahead knowing they were violating the law. Either way, qualified immunity provides no safe haven."

School officials should pay close attention to this case. One of the serious problems with viewpoint discrimination is the tendency to find no harm in requiring people to adhere to beliefs that officials like and agree with. The First Amendment, however, requires that governments not institute such purity tests.  Even a noble goal such as preventing discrimination cannot justify using government power to punish particular beliefs, speech, or associations.

What the University did here was clearly unconstitutional. 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.

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youth services law, first amendment, youth serving organizations, ausburn_deborah, insights