University of Iowa denies publishing 'religious watch list' after it's accused of discrimination

A Christian conservative student group filed a lawsuit against the University of Iowa after the group was kicked off campus for requiring its leaders to adhere to a faith standard that included a clause on sexual morality.

But in the latest legal battle, that group, in a court filing, claims 33 religious student organizations at the university have been placed on "probationary status."

The university calls the claim a blatant "misrepresentation of the facts." The university insists "all religious organizations remain in registered status" until the legal case is decided.

The Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), which sued the University of Iowa in 2017 after it was removed from campus, now accuses the university of having a "religious watch list" because 32 groups -- all with religious ties -- were marked, "stopped, pending litigation." BLinC says that means they are on probationary status.

Of the 500-plus organizations on campus, the list names groups like Cru, Hillel, InterVarsity, Muslim Students Association, and Young Life. Becket, the non-profit legal firm representing BLinC, says the list is further proof that the public university is singling out religious groups and discriminating against them, especially when the school allows secular groups to restrict leadership or membership based on race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and military service.

The university says it prohibits any discrimination based on sexual orientation and has accused the BLinC of violating the school's Human Rights Policy and the Iowa Civil Rights Act when it denied a gay member a chance to be a leader.

Hayley Bruce, a spokesperson for the University of Iowa, said the school is waiting to hear how it should address "the conflict that currently exists between the First Amendment and the Iowa Civil Rights Act."

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But critics accuse the university of violating the constitution.

“For an institution handing out Ph.D.’s, the university displays an embarrassing ignorance of our nation’s first liberty,” Eric Baxter, senior counsel and vice president of Becket, said in a statement. “The First Amendment prohibits the university from telling religious groups who can be their leaders, especially while allowing every other group on campus free reign to pick their leaders—and in many instances their members, too.”

School mascot Herky the Hawk in front of the Old Capitol Museum at the University of Iowa.

School mascot Herky the Hawk in front of the Old Capitol Museum at the University of Iowa. (REUTERS/Koh Gui Qing)

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Becket points out the university doesn't hold this standard for other groups like fraternities, sports clubs, musical groups, advocacy organizations, political groups, or minority support clubs. For example, the University of Iowa gave the green light to the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Chinese Dance Club, Chinese in Iowa City group, and Chinese Music Club, but flagged the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship for the religious component.

Baxter called the school's list and threat of expulsion "textbook Big Brother," the kind of "doublethink that would make the Ministry of Truth blush."

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The school disagrees.

"The university has maintained the registered status of all religious and faith-based groups allowing them full access to all benefits, funding, facilities, and resources that are offered to all other student organizations on campus. Therefore, the university has not placed any religious student organization on 'probationary status' as insinuated by BLinC’s legal counsel. This is a misrepresentation of the facts and all religious organizations remain in registered status while the court decides and ultimately directs the university on how it should address the conflict that currently exists between the First Amendment and the Iowa Civil Rights Act," Bruce said in a statement to Fox News. "The University of Iowa does not tolerate discrimination of any kind in accordance with federal and state law."

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A decision on the lawsuit is expected this spring.

"The document filed by the university on Friday only underscores its discrimination," said Ryan Colby, a Becket spokesman. "It shows that if the university wins, (33) religious organizations will be subject to deregistration for requiring their leaders to be religions. It also shows that all other organizations—dozens of which screen their leaders based on sex or other categories in the Human Rights Policy—are not being subjected to any review, and will not be even after the lawsuits are over. If that is not religious discrimination, we eagerly await for the university to tell us what it is. Indeed, two years already, and still waiting."