IOWA CITY, Iowa — University of Iowa administrators can be held liable for monetary damages for improperly barring a Christian student group that rejects homosexual relationships, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, in a victory for religious conservatives on college campuses.
The administrators do not enjoy qualified immunity from the lawsuit brought by Business Leaders in Christ because they violated the group’s clearly established constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
The case dates to 2017, when the organization barred a student from serving in its leadership after disclosing that he was gay and did not agree with its teachings on sexuality.
The student filed a complaint with the university alleging the group discriminated against him. University administrators later ruled that the group’s requirements for leaders had the effect of disqualifying some students based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and revoked its status as a student organization.
The group filed a lawsuit and a federal judge ordered the university to restore it as a student group.
U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose found in 2019 that the university had unevenly applied its human rights policy by allowing other groups to limit membership based on religious views, race, sex and other characteristics, while barring Business Leaders in Christ.
But she ruled that dean of students Lyn Redington, assistant dean Thomas Baker and Iowa Memorial Union executive director William Nelson had qualified immunity and therefore could not be ordered to pay damages sought by the group.
A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit overturned that part of her decision on Monday, citing U.S. Supreme Court and other federal court precedent that student groups cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their viewpoints.
The decision sends the case back to a lower court for additional proceedings, including a determination of what damages they should face.
Advocates called the decision a victory for religious student groups nationwide.
“University of Iowa officials knew this was wrong, and they did it anyway,” said Eric Baxter, vice president at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “We’re pleased to have the court recognize that blatant religious discrimination brings personal consequences.”