Tuesday, March 23, 2021

8th Circuit: No Qualified Immunity On Christian Student Group's Free Speech Claim

In Business Leaders In Christ v. University of Iowa, (8th Circuit, March 22, 2021), the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the district court erred in granting qualified immunity to the individual defendants on plaintiff's free speech and expressive association claims. Plaintiff claims that the University selectively applied its human rights policy to prevent it from becoming a recognized student organization because the organization required its leaders to sign a statement of faith that would disqualify individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The court held that it is clearly established that a nondiscrimination policy neutral on its face violates a student group’s rights to free speech and expressive association if not applied in a viewpoint-neutral manner. Two judges held, however, that the district court correctly granted qualified immunity on plaintiff's free-exercise claim.

Judge Kobes dissented in part, contending that University officials should also not be granted qualified immunity on the free-exercise claim, saying in part:

[S]tate 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. 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.

Courthouse News Service reports on the decision.