Appeals court considers university officials’ personal liability for religious discrimination 

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Credit: Becket.

CNA Staff, Jan 14, 2021 / 12:56 am (CNA).- A federal appeals court heard arguments on Wednesday on whether public university officials can be held personally liable for religious discrimination.

The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on Wednesday in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. University of Iowa, the case of a Christian group kicked off the school’s campus because of its faith-based policy requiring leaders to be Christian.

“This is a case of deliberate, express, religious viewpoint discrimination,” stated Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket who is representing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship before the Eighth Circuit Court.

In the case, a federal district court had held that University of Iowa officials were personally liable for unlawful removal of several faith-based groups from campus for purportedly violating the school’s nondiscrimination policy.

According to the university, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and other religious groups had violated the policy because they required leaders to abide by the stated religious beliefs of the groups.

In 2018, InterVarsity Christian was notified by the university that its standards—that leaders be Christians—violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy. In July of that year, InterVarsity and 38 other student organizations including Sikh, Muslim, and Christian groups were deregistered for similar religious requirements of their leaders.

In response to a lawsuit filed by InterVarsity Christian, the university temporarily reinstated the religious student groups. Later in 2019, a federal district court ruled that the university had violated First Amendment rights of the groups, and that university officials were personally liable. The university then appealed the case to the Eighth Circuit.

The school’s stated reason for the de-registration of the groups was religious, and it contrasts with its lack of enforcement against other secular groups, Blomberg told federal judges on Wednesday

“The primary issue is that the university chose to target religious beliefs as such, and did it while exempting dozens and dozens of other student organizations, and its own programs, from the exact same policy,” he said.

In a written statement on Wednesday, Blomberg said that “[u]niversity officials who target individuals or groups based on religion must be held accountable for their actions.”

Attorneys for the university argued on Wednesday that the university was making “good faith” efforts to comply with a previous court order instructing them to change their enforcement of the nondiscrimination policy; further, the actions by university officials were shielded from qualified immunity, they argued.

The case is similar to that heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski.

In that case, attorneys for two students at Georgia Gwinnett College argued before the court that school officials should be personally liable for the school’s policy restricting where and when they could evangelize fellow students on campus, and for security guards temporarily stopping them from evangelizing.

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