SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Iowa set out to end discrimination in student clubs. Then it got sued. Twice.
Both lawsuits were filed by faith-based student groups who say the university's efforts to address anti-LGBT bias are harming people of faith. The groups were asked to loosen restrictions governing who can be a club leader, a request that some see as unlawful interference.
"When you take control of leadership, you're co-opting the group itself," said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel for Becket, the law firm representing both religious clubs.
University officials say they're focused on upholding human rights laws, not targeting religious students. They've deregistered nearly 40 student organizations this summer for failing to comply with campus policy, and around a quarter of them were faith-based.
"The University of Iowa respects the rights of students, faculty and staff to practice the religion of their choice," said Anne Bassett, the University of Iowa's media relations director, in a statement released earlier this year.
The ongoing conflict, as well as related legislative debates, has religious freedom advocates and university officials scrambling to find a solution that works for all students. College should be about learning and making new connections, not appearing in court, Blomberg said.
"These students are students. They have better things to do with their time than fight their own administration," he said.
University of Iowa student organizations have always been required to honor the school's nondiscrimination policy, which prohibits treating people differently because of their race, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation or other protected trait.
But until this spring, school officials did not preemptively check to see if clubs were in compliance. They waited until they received a complaint.
In February 2017, a gay student filed one against Business Leaders in Christ, explaining that he'd been barred from a leadership position since he wouldn't affirm the Christian group's statement of faith, which included the claim that only married, heterosexual couples should have sex. After some back and forth with members, school officials deregistered Business Leaders in Christ.
"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," Bassett said. Deregistered groups cannot access school funds, reserve on-campus facilities or participate in student organization fairs.
In December, Business Leaders in Christ sued the university, calling the schools' actions discriminatory, as the Deseret News reported earlier this year.
"The core arguments are under the free speech clause and religion clauses" of the First Amendment, Blomberg said. Iowa "can't discriminate against religious expression."
LGBT rights groups applauded the school's actions, arguing it wouldn't be right for administrators to allow the exclusion of gay or lesbian students from leadership roles to continue.
"We applaud the university for not tolerating discrimination," said Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, executive director of One Iowa, to the Deseret News in January.
In late January, a federal court judge ruled that Business Leaders in Christ should be re-registered temporarily. The opinion noted inconsistencies in how the University of Iowa applied its human rights rules.
Over the past several months, school officials responded by conducting a review of student clubs. Groups that didn't cite the school's human rights policy in their guiding documents were asked to make edits, The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported.
As a result of the review, around 40 clubs were deregistered, including faith groups like the Latter-day Saints Student Association, Imam Mahdi Organization and Sikh Awareness Club.
"It was really unprecedented," said Katie Glenn, policy counsel for 1st Amendment Partnership, which advocates on behalf of faith-based clubs across the country.
On August 6, one of the deregistered groups, InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, filed a new lawsuit, asserting that making the requested changes to its club constitution would undermine its religious identity.
"Because we love our school, we hope it reconsiders and lets religious groups continue to authentically reflect their religious groups," said InterVarsity's student president, Katrina Schrock, in a statement.
InterVarsity has asked for the same temporary reinstatement that Business Leaders in Christ received, Blomberg said.
As the start of the fall semester draws closer — and with it, the fall student organization fair — many University of Iowa student groups are in limbo. Some clubs will make bylaw edits once members are back on campus, while others will await further developments in the two cases.
Schools can avoid confusion and court appearances by creating policies that respect the unique status of faith-based and other ideological clubs, Glenn said. The 1st Amendment Partnership advocates for school policies that target unjust discrimination and avoid penalizing an organization for its sincerely held beliefs.
"South Dakota has a really good policy that says if applying the human rights policy would negate your purpose for having your club at all, then you don't have to apply it that way," Glenn said.
Regulations that are too broad or poorly crafted can end up hurting the students they're trying to protect, she added. For example, an effort to end religious discrimination may make it impossible for Catholic students to form an all-Catholic club.
"It becomes a problem if (a club) wants to have specific criteria for members or leaders based on their faith tradition," Glenn said.
The Iowa legislature considered a bill involving protections for faith-based student groups during its 2018 session. It passed the Senate before the session ended, and Glenn hopes it will be reconsidered next year.
"We are continuing to educate lawmakers on how important this issue is," she said.
As Glenn and others pursue legislative solutions, Becket will continue to defend faith-based clubs in court, Blomberg said.77 comments on this story
"A long-term solution is probably going to require some very clear court precedents that makes it clear that religious groups can't be discriminated against and have the right to select their leaders," he said.
In the meantime, Marcus Miller, the student who filed the original complaint against Business Leaders in Christ, has formed a new student group, which has been registered by the University of Iowa, NBC News reported.
"Love Works (is) a Jesus-centered student group that advocates for LGBTQ justice," the article noted.