University of Iowa ordered to pay nearly $2 million in religious discrimination lawsuits

by mcardinal

Chris Lange, FISM News


The University of Iowa has been ordered to pay almost $2 million in attorneys’ fees in two companion lawsuits for discriminating against several Christian student clubs and willfully violating religious liberty protections. The three-member Iowa State Appeal Board on Monday ordered the publicly funded university to reimburse legal fees of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit legal organization representing the campus groups, following an earlier victory in a federal court in a case that has been litigated for nearly four years. 

The Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) in 2017 brought a lawsuit against the UI after it abolished the conservative Christian club from campus and cut off student activity funding over the group’s affirming views of the biblical definitions of marriage and sexuality. 

The university targeted the group after a gay student filed a human rights complaint against BLinC when he was denied a leadership role, saying that the club’s biblical views violated the school’s Human Rights Policy and the Iowa Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

BLinC accused the university of violating their religious liberty in their suit and further allege it published a “religious watch list” as part of a “student organization clean-up” campaign, which placed 32 additional religious-affiliated groups on “probationary status.”  Among the clubs included in the purported list were Young Life, Cru, Hillel, Muslim Students Association. Another club, Intervarsity, filed a companion lawsuit against UI in 2018. 

Becket argued that the “watch list” provided concrete evidence that the university was actively targeting and discriminating against religious groups at the same time it was allowing secular groups to base memberships on race, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity. 

A panel of appellate judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled in July that the University’s decision to bar BLinC and Intervarsity was “clearly unconstitutional.” A portion of the decision states that UI “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 found that the university and other named defendants, including then-UI President Bruce Harreld and then-UI Vice President of Student Life Melissa Shivers, ignored “decades of First Amendment jurisprudence” and “proceeded full speed ahead, knowing they were violating the law.”

The Iowa State Appeal Board on Monday ordered the publicly funded university to pay $1.4 million in attorney fees in the BLinC case and $553,508 in legal fees and damages in the Intervarsity case. 

Iowa State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald demanded answers from Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson in terms of the costly lawsuits, according to the Gazette.

“When this stuff starts out — they ask to be a student group and somebody tells them no — I assume they don’t come to your office for that kind of advice,” Fitzgerald said. “Do they get some sort of legal advice down there? The Law School or somebody tells them, ‘Hey you can’t do that.’”

Thompson said the situation is complex and explained that the university does consult with its Office of the General Counsel, adding “We were involved in this process from the beginning.” Thompson went on to suggest the Becket group filed the lawsuits as part of an effort to establish legal precedent, saying “One of the reasons that these cases were brought and this started, this was initially a test case that was designed to create litigation,” he said.