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CNA Staff, Mar 23, 2021 / 09:01 pm (CNA).- University of Iowa officials who wrongly de-recognized a Christian student group for objecting to same-sex relationships can be held personally liable for their unconstitutional actions, a federal appeals court has said.

The decision came in a second lawsuit relating to the university’s treatment of campus religious groups.

A three-judge panel with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 22 overturned part of a lower court’s decision which held that dean of students Lyn Redington, assistant dean Thomas Baker, and Iowa Memorial Union executive director had qualified immunity. Instead, the panel said they could be ordered to pay damages for treating the Christian group Business Leaders in Christ more strictly than other student groups, the Associated Press reports.

Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said that the Christian group “takes good students and makes them better by strengthening their resolve to remain true to their moral compass in the cutthroat business world.”  

“Any wise university would be thrilled to have them on campus, but the University of Iowa tried hounding them off instead,” Baxter said. “Fortunately, the First Amendment protects their right to remain on campus on the same terms as every other student group.”

In 2019, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose ruled that the university’s anti-discrimination policy was unevenly applied. It allowed other groups, such as fraternities and sports groups, to choose their leaders based on the group’s shared mission or on the basis of sex or other characteristics protected by the university’s anti-discrimination policy.

However, it had penalized Business Leaders in Christ after siding with a student who alleged he was discriminated against and deprived of a leadership position on the basis of sexual orientation.

The student group maintains the student’s actions, rather than orientation, were the reason he was denied the position.

“It’s deeply ironic that school officials tried using the University’s nondiscrimination policy to discriminate against religion,” said Baxter.

“They knew this was wrong, yet did it anyway. We’re pleased the court has recognized that such blatant religious discrimination brings personal consequences.”

Judge Jonathan A. Kobes wrote a partial concurrence and partial dissent to the panel decision.

“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,” he said.

The individual defendants can make the case that “they are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution,” he said. “Either way, they should not get qualified immunity.”

After the appellate court’s ruling, a lower court will hold further proceedings and determine legal damages.

The controversy began in late 2017, when the university found merit in a complaint from a then-sophomore student member who said Business Leaders in Christ had denied him an officer position because of his openly gay sexual orientation.

The group rejected that claim in its lawsuit, saying that the student “expressly stated” that he rejected its religious beliefs and would not follow them. The group’s executive board said it was concerned the member did not share the group’s view of “the Bible’s guiding authority and its teaching on sexual conduct,” Courthouse News Service reported in December 2017. The group said it welcomes gay members but decided his beliefs and pursuit of same-sex relationships rendered him ineligible.

The University of Iowa required the group to publish a statement of beliefs. The group complied, even though the university did not require other groups to publish similar statements. The group put a statement of faith in its group’s constitution that upheld the Biblical definition of marriage. The university considered this discriminatory and removed the group, leading to the lawsuit.

Other campus groups with a religious affiliation then faced scrutiny and de-recognition by university officials. Some filed their own legal challenges.

In 2018, the campus’ InterVarsity Christian chapter was notified by the university that its requirement that leaders be Christians violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy. In July of that year, InterVarsity and 38 other student organizations including Sikh, Muslim, and Christian groups were deregistered for similar requirements that their leaders abide by the groups’ religious beliefs.

De-registration meant losing access to university funding, office space and other privileges.

In response to a lawsuit filed by InterVarsity Christian, the university temporarily reinstated the religious student groups. Later in 2019, a federal district court ruled that the university had violated First Amendment rights of the groups, and that university officials were personally liable.

The university appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in that case as well. It heard arguments over personal liability in January 2021.

Some private universities, including Catholic universities, have wider discretion in what groups they may legally forbid. In Tennessee, the Vanderbilt University Catholic student group was forced to leave the campus in 2012 after the private university’s non-discrimination policy barred student groups from requiring their leaders to have specific religious beliefs.