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The Iowa Legislature has brought back two bills that reignite a year-long debate over religious liberties and the free speech of student organizations at regent universities.

House File 316 and Senate Study Bill 1099 are identical bills moving through their respective chambers that would allow a student organization at regent universities to enforce religious rules barring certain groups from taking leadership roles within its group. The Senate version of the bill has passed a subcommittee.

Similar to a Senate bill from the last legislative session, these proposals came shortly after a development in the federal court case between the University of Iowa and a conservative religious group.

The federal judge sided with the group called Business Leaders in Christ over their barring of a gay member from a leadership position within the organization. The judge agreed with some of the claims the student group had while ruling with the university on others.

The University of Iowa wanted to deregister the group after learning about their leadership selection process in 2017 as it went against a university policy which states “The University’s Human Rights Policy prohibits student organizations from restricting membership or access to leadership positions on any protected status such as race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity,” federal court documents claimed.

The judge’s ruling states the University of Iowa must allow the group to remain on campus, however, as the university did not consistently apply their rules against Business Leaders in Christ and other student organizations.

The bill currently moving through the Senate and House would effectively prevent any institution from creating rules like the ones in the University of Iowa’s human rights policy.

“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 affirm or agree to the student organization’s beliefs or standards of conduct,” according to the bills.

The Board of Regents currently believes regent universities adequately support student's first amendment rights, according to a statement. 

“Our public universities are places where all viewpoints should and can be heard and respected,” said Josh Lehman, senior communications director for the Board of Regents in a statement. “This has been a long-standing core principal of institutions of higher learning, and the Board of Regents fully supports the free expression of ideas on our campuses. The right to express differing views on any issue is paramount, and the Board and our universities do and will continue to support this right. We will continue to monitor the bill.

When this bill was pushed for in the Senate last legislative session, one co-sponsor, Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said he supported the bill to prevent discrimination against the free exercise of religion.

“If the government is impeding on religious beliefs, they would only be able to do so as a last resort, and this is essential to protect the free exercise of religion in Iowa,” Garrett said.

Opponents saw this application of the bill as problematic. Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, said at the time that allowing these groups to discriminate and exclude is not a part of Iowa values and would be breaking the Iowa civil rights code.

Wessel-Kroeschell, who helped add new protections under the civil rights code in 2007, said in an interview with the Daily last year, “this bill would be infringing upon many of the protections that were added including the accommodation protection that would prevent a religious person from discriminating against someone based on their sexuality.”

The religious group at the University of Iowa defended their decision arguing that other groups on campus were allowed to disallow certain members from being in leadership positions. The conservative Christian group says they allow anyone to join their group, but the leaders in the group must affirm a statement of faith that rejects homosexuality.

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