Court: University officials personally liable for constitutional violations

By Bob Unruh

(Video screenshot)

For the second time, a court has ruled that University of Iowa officials can be held personally liable for violating the constitutional rights of students.

In the latest case, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a student club, Business Leaders in Christ, which was banned by University of Iowa officials because it required that its leaders be Christian.

The non-profit legal group Becket, which represented the club, said the university “oddly claimed this was a violation of its nondiscrimination policy, even though it allowed other religious groups to select faith-compliant leaders and openly encouraged other groups – like fraternities and sororities – to select leaders based on other characteristics covered by the nondiscrimination policy.”

The court said 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.”

“That is what happened here,” the court said. “The individual defendants may pick their poison: they are either plainly incompetent or they knowingly violated the Constitution. Either way, they should not get qualified immunity.”

Becket said the court recognized the university’s “blatant viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment.”

BLinC helps business students live out their faith in the workplace. The university initially assured the group’s members they could select leaders who embraced their faith but then did an about-face and kicked the group off campus.

“BLinC takes good students and makes them better by strengthening their resolve to remain true to their moral compass in the cutthroat business world,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Any wise university would be thrilled to have them on campus, but the University of Iowa tried hounding them off instead. Fortunately, the First Amendment protects their right to remain on campus on the same terms as every other student group.”

The group welcomes all students as members but requires that its leaders align with its beliefs, as do other campus clubs.

The university officials, even after a warning from a federal judge, also banned Sikh and Muslim groups from campus.

‘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.”

A federal judge previously ruled that University of Iowa officials violated the law when they removed the InterVarsity Club from campus for asking its leaders to be Christian.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose held that officials must pay out of their own pockets for their actions.

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