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University of Iowa lawsuit pits gay rights against religious freedom

A Christian student group is suing the university after it revoked the group’s campus registration for denying a leadership position to a gay student.
Image: University of Iowa
University of Iowa students walk past the Old Capitol building in Iowa City.Charlie Neibergall / AP file

A legal battle brewing at the University of Iowa is pitting gay rights against religious freedom.

Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) is suing the public university for religious discrimination after it revoked the group’s campus registration in November for denying a leadership position to a gay student.

The group, which was founded three years ago at the school’s Tippie College of Business, rejects the university’s claim.

“BLinC declined the student’s request because he expressly stated that he rejected BLinC’s religious beliefs and would not follow them,” the lawsuit claims.

"Asking the government to subsidize your religious gathering is a novel and aggressive reframing of what religious liberty has been understood to be in the past."

Jennifer Pizer. Lambda Legal

The group says its membership is open to everyone but says its leaders must affirm a statement of faith that rejects homosexuality.

“This is 2017, not 1984,” Jacob Estell, the student president of BLinC, said in a statement. “Our beliefs weren’t made by us, and they can’t be changed by us either — certainly not just to satisfy Orwellian government rules.”

The University of Iowa, which did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment, issued a statement asserting it “does not tolerate discrimination of any kind in accordance with federal and state law.”

“The University of Iowa respects the right of students, faculty, and staff to practice the religion of their choice,” the statement said. “However, when a voluntary student organization chooses to become a registered student organization, it must adhere to the mission of the university, the UI’s policies and procedures, and all local, state, and federal laws. The UI recently found Business Leaders in Christ violated the university’s Human Rights Policy and the Iowa Civil Rights Act.”

Losing its on-campus student organization designation means BLinC can no longer reserve campus meeting space, participate in student recruitment fairs, access funds from student activity fees or use university-wide communication services.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing BLinC in court. The Becket Fund has developed a track record of successfully litigating religious liberty cases, including the landmark 2014 case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. In a split decision, the Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby to find that the government could not compel the company to provide contraception for female employees when to do so would violate the religious beliefs of the owners.

“We have dozens of cases, but this is one that is very important,” Becket Fund attorney Daniel Blomberg said of the BLinC case. “It’s an issue that we have been paying attention to for a long time and goes to the heart of some First Amendment rights.”

According to Blomberg, the University of Iowa violated the students’ First Amendment rights by asking them to rewrite their “Statement of Faith” to allow openly gay students to assume leadership roles. This, Blomberg said, is tantamount to asking the organization’s members to change the content of their beliefs.

Blomberg claimed the “university is acting in a discriminatory manner” by singling out the eight-person student group. He pointed to fraternities and sororities as university-recognized organizations that restrict both membership and leadership on the basis of certain characteristics, such as gender.

He said BLinC was “kicked off campus, marginalized and stigmatized by the university,” thus putting it at a “severe disadvantage” compared to other groups in terms of visibility and recruitment.

“This is an important instance where a big mistake has been made, but we are hoping that the court will correct it in a manner that provides guidance for other schools,” Blomberg added.

Judge Stephanie M. Rose of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa has set a hearing for Thursday on a request from the group to reinstate its on-campus privileges in time to participate in spring recruitment fairs, which start on Jan. 24 — something the group says is "crucial to its existence."

One Iowa, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, defended the university’s decision in regards to BLinC.

“As a registered student organization utilizing funding and resources from the University of Iowa, Business Leaders in Christ had an obligation to follow not only the policies and procedures of the university, but local and state law as well,” One Iowa Executive Director Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel said in a statement. “Both the Iowa Civil Rights Act and the University of Iowa’s Human Rights Policy are crystal clear. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is unacceptable at a publicly funded institution.”

The Supreme Court is currently considering a similar case, which also pits gay rights against religious freedom. The question at the center of the case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, is whether a Christian baker, Jack Phillips, should be allowed to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Lower courts have sided with the couple, maintaining Philips’ refusal violated Colorado’s non-discrimination law. Colorado and Iowa are among the 21 states that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Jennifer Pizer, law and policy director at LGBTQ legal group Lambda Legal, said the Masterpiece and BLinC cases undeniably share similarities.

“The core idea is the same,” she said. “People saying, ‘Because I have a religious reason for wanting to do something contrary to law, I should get to do what I want … even if it involves harm to someone else.’”

Pizer said the BLinC case is another example of “the legal arm of the religious right movement” attempting to “reset the relationship between religious freedom and equality principles to allow religion to trump equality.”

Pizer said it’s also important to note the University of Iowa is a public institution “paid for by taxpayer money.”

“It is one thing to say the group may be allowed to exist at a school. It’s another thing to say they have a claim to school money and school endorsement as an official club,” she explained. “Asking the government to subsidize your religious gathering is a novel and aggressive reframing of what religious liberty has been understood to be in the past.”

While BLinC attempts to have its campus registration reinstated, the student it rejected for a leadership position, Marcus Miller, has started his own university-recognized organization, Love Works, a Jesus-centered student group that advocates for LGBTQ justice.