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Iowa bill would let student groups violate state nondiscrimination protections

It's a direct response to a student group that discriminated against a gay student.

Iowa's State Capitol. CREDIT: Joseph Sohm via Getty Images
Iowa's State Capitol. CREDIT: Joseph Sohm via Getty Images

Last week, the Iowa Senate approved a bill along party lines that would allow university student groups to discriminate against LGBTQ students and others. It appears to be a direct response to a conflict at the University of Iowa, where a Christian group was stripped of its recognition for discriminating against a gay student.

Senate Bill 3120 largely addresses aspects of free speech in public places on campuses, but also contains a pair of provisions that allow student groups to discriminate in their membership:

A public institution of higher education shall not deny benefits or privileges available to student organizations based on the viewpoint of a student organization or the expression of the viewpoint of a student organization by the student organization or its members protected by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

In addition, a public institution of higher education shall not deny any benefit or privilege to a student organization based on the student organization’s requirement that the leaders of the student organization affirm or agree to the student organization’s beliefs or standards of conduct or further the student organization’s mission.

This reference to whether organizations can dictate the “beliefs or standards of conduct” of its leaders parallels the recent case of the group Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), a student organization at the University of Iowa (UI), a public institution.

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In 2016, BLinC refused to allow a student to serve as the group’s vice president for the sole reason that he was gay. Because the group believes that all sex outside of the marriage of a man and a woman is wrong, it determined that his sexuality disqualified him from the position. He complained, and the university agreed that BLinC had violated its nondiscrimination policy, which protects the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity.

In December, the organization sued the university and persuaded a federal court that UI had been inconsistent in the way that it assessed student groups’ compliance with its Human Rights Policy. The university had argued that it simply responds to complaints about violations, but there was enough evidence to disprove the rule. In particular, the university had refused to let a chapter of the Christian Legal Society form back in 2004 until it included the policy in its constitution, but had allowed a Muslim group called Imam Mahdi to form despite the fact it espoused religious requirements for its leaders.

The judge granted a temporary injunction reinstating BLinC as an organization for 90 days, which will last it just two weeks shy of the end of the spring semester. But the injunction states that the university “may respond by detailing any changes to the enforcement of its Human Rights Policy to registered student organizations.” In other words, it can continue to enforce the policy — requiring groups like BLinC not to discriminate if they want to receive privileges as an official student organization — so long as it addresses its past inconsistencies.

But the bill the Senate advanced last week would supersede that. Indeed, it would carve an exception into the Iowa Civil Rights Act to license such discrimination by student groups. The law states, “It is an unfair or discriminatory practice for any educational institution to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability in any program or activity.” Allowing a student group to discriminate would force public universities like UI to violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

To make the discriminatory intention behind the bill even more obvious, lawmakers actually removed a section that stated, “A public institution of higher education may prohibit student organizations from discriminating against members or prospective members on the basis of any protected status recognized by federal or state law.”

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The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Amy Sinclair (R), ironically claims that the bill — including that change — is not about protecting BLinC, but about protecting Imam Mahdi, the Muslim group that wants to discriminate. The section that was cut, she said, “could be applied in a way that would appear to target this Muslim student group, because they have that requirement for membership that they be members of the faith, which is a protected class of people.”

Directly contradicting the language in the legislation, Sinclair claimed that the bill “does not in any way say that the university can’t continue to act on issues of discrimination.”

The bill now moves to the Iowa House for a vote.