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Court case to affect UI group

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | DECEMBER 11, 2009 7:30 AM

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The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a religious student group, which has a chapter at the UI, will be forced to change its constitution banning gays and lesbians as officers and voting members or risk losing university funding.

The Christian Legal Society, a national law-student group, has a clause in its constitution prohibiting executive members from engaging in sexual conduct outside of a traditional marriage — including homosexuality.

The clause has generated controversy across the country and at the UI.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. The court’s decision will decide whether a public university’s law school may deny funding to a student organization requiring its officers and voting members to agree with its core religious viewpoints even it goes against university policy.

The decision will affect all chapters.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal from members from the chapter at the University of California-San Francisco after the school refused to recognize the society because it did not abide by its universitywide policy barring discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The UI has a similar clause in its Human Rights Policy.

Supporters of the society say the members have the right of expressive association, or to choose who to allow in their group to make sure their leadership is compatible with its message.

“It’s completely unreasonable — and unconstitutional — for a public university to disrupt the purposes of private student groups by forcing them to accept as members and officers those who oppose the very ideas they advocate,” Gregory Baylor, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom, said in a press release.

Opponents agree religious groups can limit their membership but argue the UI shouldn’t have to foot the bill.

“The problem is that they’re using public taxpayer funds,” said Rita Bettis, a third-year law student and member of the Iowa Campaign for Human Rights.

But members of the Christian Legal Society said the group operates within the UI’s antidiscrimination policy.

They noted the group’s bylaws only apply to voting membership. Anyone is permitted to attend events, most of which are Bible discussions and charitable functions.

The Christian Legal Society is apparently the only group at the UI with bylaws prohibiting certain groups of people from leadership positions.

“Legal issues aside, by providing [the Christian Legal Society] with public university funds, the UI encourages bigotry toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and staff,” said Joe Austen, a third-year law student and vice president of Law Students for Reproductive Justice.

Last year, that group, along with the Iowa Center for Human Rights, circulated a petition calling for UI and student government officials to halt the society’s funding. More than 100 UI law students and faculty members signed.

The group was, nonetheless, granted university funding.

As the Supreme Court mulls the decision, Bettis and Austen are working to build a coalition of people and groups at the law school who disapprove of giving funding to the Christian Legal Society, they said.


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