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House Republicans Advance Religious Freedom on Campus Bill

Joyce Russell/IPR
Rep. Sandy Salman (R-Janesville)

Religious groups on Iowa’s university campuses would have more freedom to choose their leaders, under a GOP-sponsored bill that advanced in the Iowa House today.

Backers say the bill will address a conflict at the University of Iowa, where a student group lost its certification after denying a leadership post to a gay student.    

Rep. Sandy Salmon (R-Janesville) calls the university’s action outrageous. 

Faith-based groups should be able to choose their leaders. -Rep. Sandy Salmon

“This has forced faith-based student groups to choose between violating sincerely-held religious beliefs or being decertified as a recognized campus group,” Salmon said at a hearing on the bill. “Unfortunately when faith-based groups try to stand up for their freedom of expression they are accused of bigotry.”

At the University of Iowa, officials rescinded the campus certification of a group known as Business Leaders in Christ.  A University of Iowa spokesperson says, “Business Leaders in Christ violated the UI's Human Rights Policy and the Iowa Civil Rights Act."

But the group sued the University of Iowa in federal court, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated.

Rather than a free speech bill it is exactly the opposite. -Meredith Corporation

The bill which passed a GOP-dominated three-member panel would allow any campus group to require its leaders to comply with the organization’s beliefs and standards of conduct. 

Critics say that means student groups could violate Iowa’s civil rights laws, including protection for gays and lesbians.

“In particular Section 3.3 we believe would allow students groups to discriminate,” said Daniel Zeno with the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. “It would allow a student group to say if you are gay you cannot be a leader in our group.”

The Des Moines-based Meredith Corporation issued a strongly-worded statement objecting to the bill. 

The universities have always been open to free speech. -Regents spokesman Keith Saunders

“Rather than a free speech bill, it is exactly the opposite,” the statement read.    “It provides an avenue to exclude people,” it concluded, based on race, color, national origin, or any other characteristic protected in Iowa’s civil  rights statute.

In the statement, Meredith said it is concerned about the image of the state as it expects to add hundreds of jobs at its Des Moines headquarters as a result of its acquisition of Time, Inc.

“It is very important to Meredith that Iowa is viewed as an inclusive, welcoming and progressive state for prospective employees,” the statement read.

“If there's a company in this state that believes in First Amendment rights, it’s Meredith,” added Meredith lobbyist Jim Carney.

A spokesman said the Regents universities are monitoring the bill. 

“The universities have always been open to free speech on both sides,” Keith Saunders told lawmakers.    “We look forward to continuing to work with you on this legislation as it moves forward.”

The bill has already passed the Senate.   It faces a self-imposed deadline next week to be approved by the full House Education Committee.