Federal court holds university employees 'personally liable' in First Amendment lawsuit

The university de-registered the group for allegedly violating the school's "human rights policy" by requiring leaders to uphold certain beliefs.

A federal judge has held three University of Iowa employees "personally liable" in a First Amendment case.

The court found that the employees violated the First Amendment rights of a religious student group.

A federal judge has ordered that three employees of the University of Iowa be held "personally liable" for violating a Christian student organization's First Amendment rights. 

According to a court order, Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers, Associate Dean of Student Organizations William Nelson, and Coordinator for Student Organization Development Andrew Kutcher were all three "actively involved" in the process that eventually led to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship being de-registered as an official student organization after the Christian group would not drop the requirement that its leaders adhere to the Christian faith, which the university said violated its human rights policy. 

UI's human rights policy states that registered student organizations "must be open to all students without regard to race, creed, color, religion, national origin, age, sex...pregnancy, disability, genetic information, status as a U.S. veteran, service in the U.S. military, sexual orientation, gender identity, associational preferences, or any other classification that deprives the person of consideration as an individual."

[RELATED: UCCS refuses to recognize Christian group, so the group sues]

The federal court document cites a federal statute that states, “government officials are personally liable only for their own misconduct" and that, therefore, Shivers, Nelson and Kutcher, as employees of a taxpayer-funded public university, should be held to that standard. 

"Setting aside for the moment the issue of qualified immunity, the undisputed facts show defendants Shivers, Nelson, and Kutcher were actively involved in the review of RSO constitutions in 2018 and the enforcement of the Human Rights Policy against InterVarsity," the court order says. "Kutcher reviewed all RSO constitutions, submitted a list of religious RSOs to Nelson, notified InterVarsity and other groups of their noncompliance with University policies, informed InterVarsity that its leadership requirements (and proposed changes thereto) contradicted the Human Rights Clause, and told the group that it would be deregistered if it failed to remove the offending provisions from its constitution. Nelson supervised this process and reported to Shivers. Although acting in a supervisory capacity, Nelson and Shivers were actively involved in the process that led to the deregistration of InterVarsity."

[RELATED: Is UI unfairly targeting this Christian group?]

InterVarsity was one of "numerous other religious student groups" at the University of Iowa to be stripped of registered club status over the human rights policy. At least two religious student groups, InterVarsity and Business Leaders in Christ, sued the school. Both won their cases.

BLinC's lawsuit prompted UI to request documentation from other registered student groups showing they comply with the university's human rights policy. At least 38 other student groups were de-registered as a result of that review, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette

“It’s too bad it took twice for the University to learn its lesson,” Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket Religous Fund, said in a news release, referring to both the BLinC lawsuit and the InterVarsity lawsuit. 

“There was no excuse the first time for squashing students’ First Amendment rights," Blomberg added. "University officials nationwide should now take note that religious discrimination will hit them in the pocketbook."

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