Iowa to pay $1.9M to settle religious, speech rights cases

Dec 6, 2021, 2:03 AM | Updated: 4:05 pm

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A state panel agreed Monday to spend nearly $2 million to settle two federal lawsuits brought against the University of Iowa in 2017 after a religious group denied a gay student a leadership role.

The Iowa State Appeal Board, made up of Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, Auditor Rob Sand and Department of Management Director Kraig Paulsen, approved the court ordered settlements.

Lawyers for the student group Business Leaders in Christ were awarded $1.37 million in fees and costs for litigating the case. A second student group, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, won their federal court case and will be paid $20,000 in damages and about $513,000 in attorney fees.

The monetary amounts were negotiated between the university and the plaintiffs in both cases and approved by a federal judge. Monday’s approval by the State Appeal Board authorizes the state to make the payments.

Both cases stem from actions the University of Iowa took after a gay student said he was turned down for a leadership role in Business Leaders in Christ because he would not accept the group’s position that marriage must be between only a man and a woman. After the student alleged violations of his civil rights, the university reviewed student organizations’ compliance with civil rights and began delisting some organizations that school officials said failed to comply.

The two Christian groups were delisted and sued the university. Both won judgments that the university had violated their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion. The university appealed and the lower court decisions were upheld by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Washington-based Becket Fund led the legal efforts for both student groups.

On Monday, Iowa Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson recommended to the board approval of payment.

“In our judgment this is the simplest and most efficient way to get cases like this resolved,” he said. “We believe that this process was reasonable and (in) both cases we have a judgment from a federal district court judge and a final judgment as to the fees and damages.”

In March 2019, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a new law that requires state universities and community colleges to adopt policies that prohibit them from denying benefits to a student organization based on the viewpoint of the group.

“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 agree to and support the student organization’s beliefs, as those beliefs are interpreted and applied by the organization, and to further the student organization’s mission,” the law says.

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Iowa to pay $1.9M to settle religious, speech rights cases