University Officials Not Immune From Personal Liability Based On Decisions Creating Viewpoint Discrimination Against Religious Student Organization

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Apr 27, 2021

The University of Iowa permits students to form student organizations, and it registers student organizations under its “Registration of Student Organizations” policy. To become a Registered Student Organization (RSO) that receives benefits from the University, the group must meet certain criteria, submit specified information to the University, and abide by the University’s policies and procedures.

RSOs must abide by the University’s Human Rights Policy, which prohibits discrimination based on protected classes, as defined by the Policy. At the same time, the University’s RSO policy allows RSOs to exercise free choice of members as long as it also complies with the Human Rights Policy. Despite this, the University has approved at least six RSOs that expressly limit membership or leadership to individuals in a certain protected class.

In 2017, a student filed a complaint with the University alleging that Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), a religious organization and RSO that registered in 2014, denied him a leadership position because he was “openly gay.” The University investigated the complaint and sustained the allegation despite BLinC’s president explaining that BLinC denied the student a leadership position because the student “disagreed with, and would not agree to live by BLinC’s religious beliefs.”

The University informed BLinC that it could remain an RSO only if it understood the Human Rights Policy and complied with it in the future. BLinC subsequently revised its constitution and added a “Statement of Faith” that stated sexual relationships are limited to marriage between a man and woman and people must embrace “their God-given sex.” BLinC’s revised constitution also required its leaders to sign the Statement of Faith.

The University continued to find that BLinC remained in violation of its Human Rights Policy despite these changes and warned BLinC that it could lose its status as an RSO. The University held that the Statement of Faith had the effect of disqualifying certain individuals from leadership positions based on sexual orientation or gender identity, both of which are protected classifications. BLinC appealed to another University official who affirmed the original decision. The University subsequently revoked BLinC’s RSO status.

BLinC filed a lawsuit against the University and University officials in December 2017 alleging the University violated its First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expressive association, freedom of assembly, free exercise of religion, the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the federal Higher Education Act, the Iowa Human Rights Act, and various provisions of the Iowa Constitution. BLinC sought reinstatement as an RSO and a finding that the University officials were personally liable for violating BLinC’s constitutional rights. The trial court issued an injunction against the University requiring it to restore BLinC’s RSO status during the pendency of the litigation.

While the litigation was pending, the University conducted a review of all RSOs to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Policy and other RSO requirements. University staff involved in this review were told that RSO membership could not “be contingent on the agreement, disagreement, subscription to, etc., of stated beliefs/purposes which are covered in the Human Rights Clause.”

The trial court ruled in favor of BLinC on its free-speech, free-association, and free-exercise claims, and held that the University violated BLinC’s constitutional rights. On BLinC’s free-speech and expressive-association claims, the trial court held that the University prevented BLinC from expressing its viewpoints on protected characteristics while permitting other student groups with different views to express those viewpoints. The trial court also held that the University officials infringed on BLinC’s religious exercise for similar reasons but granted the University officials qualified immunity from personal liability for all of the violations because it concluded that the law was not clearly established. BLinC appealed the decision regarding qualified immunity for the University officials.

On appeal, BLinC argued the University officials should be personally liable, or not have qualified immunity, because their actions violated clearly established law. The University officials argued the law was not clearly established regarding the uneven enforcement of a nondiscrimination policy against registered student organizations on a university campus, which was the case here.

Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. To determine whether the law was clearly established at the time that the University officials violated BLinC’s constitutional rights of free speech, expressive association, and free exercise, the Court of Appeal examined previous opinions issued by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and other Courts of Appeal. The Court of Appeals found that the University’s recognition of RSOs created a limited public forum—property limited to use by certain groups or dedicated solely to the discussion of certain subjects. The Court of Appeals relied on Supreme Court cases that held that in limited public forums, (1) a public college could not restrict speech or association simply because it found the views expressed by any group to be abhorrent, (2) a university generally may not withhold benefits from a student group because of the group’s religious outlook, and (3) a public college could not single out religious organizations for disadvantageous treatment in the forum. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals relied on similar holdings in its own opinions and in cases from other Courts of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals held that the law was clearly established regarding free speech and expressive association in limited public forums as was the case here, and a college or university is prohibited from engaging in viewpoint discrimination against speech otherwise allowed in a limited public forum. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that the University officials did not have qualified immunity and may be personally liable.

The Court of Appeal rejected BLinC’s claim that the University officials should not have qualified immunity in the organization’s free-exercise claims. It held that the law was not clearly established at the time that the University officials’ conduct violated BLinC’s free-exercise rights.

Bus. Leaders In Christ v. Univ. of Iowa (2921) 991 F.3d 969.


This case is from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. This case is not binding in California, which is in the Ninth Circuit. But it does provide some insight into how one federal appellate court interpreted qualified immunity in cases involving the First Amendment.

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