Federal Court: University administrators personally liable for damages for discrimination against Christian student group

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

by Karen Faulkner, Worthy News Correspondent

(Worthy News) - The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that individual University of Iowa administrators are personally liable for monetary damages for breaching the First Amendment rights of the Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) student organization and removing it from the college campus.

The circumstances of the lawsuit were triggered in 2017 when BLinC revoked a leadership position from UI Sophomore Marcus Miller upon finding out that he is gay and that he did not agree with the group’s teaching on homosexuality. Miller complained to UI administrators that he had suffered discrimination, leading the college to conduct an investigation of BLinC. University administrators concluded that BLinC’s decision to bar Miller from a leadership role violated college policy against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. After the college revoked BLinC’s status as a student organization, the group filed suit against the university for violation of its First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.

In 2019, US District Judge Stephanie Rose agreed that the university administrators had discriminated against BLinC because they had allowed other groups to determine membership based on religious views, race, and sex among other qualifiers. However, Judge Rose determined that dean of Students Lyn Redington, assistant dean Thomas Baker, and Iowa Memorial Union executive director William Nelson had qualified immunity and were not liable for damages.

Reversing the second part of the District Court’s decision, on Monday the 8th US Circuit Court ruled the administrators are liable for monetary damages in this case. "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, Judge Jonathan A. Kobes wrote in giving the ruling. “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,"

The case was sent back to the lower court for further proceedings, including a decision on the amount of the financial damages.