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Iowa State Appeal Board settles lawsuits by anti-LGBTQ religious groups

The Christian groups claimed the university had violated their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion

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The University of Iowa during Homecoming (Photo Credit: The University of Iowa)

DES MOINES – The Iowa State Appeal Board, made up of Iowa state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, Auditor Rob Sand and Department of Management Director Kraig Paulsen, approved disbursing nearly $2 million in state funds to settle two Federal lawsuits brought against the University of Iowa in 2017 after a religious group denied an openly gay student a leadership role. 

According to the Associated Press in a U.S. News article Monday, lawyers for the student group Business Leaders in Christ were awarded $1.37 million in fees and costs for litigating their case. A second student group, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, won their federal court case and will be paid $20,000 in damages and about $513,000 in attorney fees.

The groups claimed the university had violated their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The monetary amounts were negotiated between the university and the plaintiffs in both cases and approved by a federal judge. Monday’s approval by the State Appeal Board authorizes the state to make the payments the AP reported.

In March of this past Spring, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Business Leaders in Christ after the University of Iowa had ordered group was dismantled in 2017 after claiming the student group violated its Human Rights Policy.

As reported by The Daily Iowan, Marcus Miller, a UI sophomore at the time, filed a discrimination complaint against the Business Leaders in Christ after the group  revoked a leadership position from Miller upon finding out his sexual orientation.

A new law that requires state universities and community colleges to adopt policies that prohibit them from denying benefits to a student organization based on the viewpoint of the group was implemented in 2019.

“In addition, 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 agree to and support the student organization’s beliefs, as those beliefs are interpreted and applied by the organization, and to further the student organization’s mission,” the law reads.

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Leadership quits, library closes after complaints about LGBTQ+ books

Some residents accused the library & its previous directors of having a “liberal agenda” over hiring LGBTQ staff & books on LGBTQ topics

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Photo Credit: Gage Miskimen, The Gazette

By Gage Miskimen | VINTON — The Vinton Public Library has lost two directors in two years as city residents have complained about the library’s display of LGBTQ books and books about President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Most recently departing the library was Renee Greenlee, its director for six months. Her experience was as the children’s and family services library assistant at the Marion Public Library and she also had worked at the Hiawatha Public Library and the Kirkwood Community College library.

Greenlee, who left the Vinton post in May and started a new job at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, declined to comment about why she left the Vinton post.

The Vinton library’s board of trustees accepted Greenlee’s resignation earlier this month in front of 100 residents. During the meeting, around a dozen people spoke in support — and against — Greenlee.

LGBTQ books

Some residents have accused the library and its previous directors of having a “liberal agenda” due to its hiring of openly LGBTQ staff members and the display of books on LGBTQ topics. They argued books about religion should be displayed equally.

In March, Brooke Kruckenberg of Vinton said the library had a “liberal agenda” based on book choices and the hiring of Greenlee and her staff, as reported by Vinton Newspapers. She and her mother, Deb Hesson, argued for more Christian content.

“It appears that there is a slow, quiet agenda moving into our local library culture through the staff hiring decisions and the books that have crept in our children’s section of the library,” Kruckenberg said at the March meeting. ”I don’t believe the library is representing our town well with hiring a majority of staff who are openly a part of the LGBTQ community.”

Greenlee at that meeting said of the almost 6,000 children’s materials in the library, seven included headings of LGBT, gay or transgender and 173 were based on Christian life.

While the library board members accepted Greenlee’s resignation, they also adopted an ethics statement and new rules for the board’s public comment period.

The ethics policy says, in part, that board members will respect colleagues’ opinions and will not be swayed by public pressure or fear of criticism, Jimmy Kelly, the library board’s chairman, told the Des Moines Register.

“The purpose is to assure our next director we are supportive of the tasks they need us to undertake,” Kelly said. “And that we understand our role as a board and take that seriously.”

McMahon tenure

Vinton, a town of around 5,000 and the county seat of Benton County, also saw another director, Janette McMahon, resign in July 2021. She now is director of the DeWitt Public Library in Clinton County.

McMahon told The Gazette last week she had a good library staff in Vinton, and some library board members who “were utterly fantastic” and others who “were a challenge.”

“Not everyone was as supportive as others when the library needed to stand up for inclusion and diversity in its materials,” she said.

McMahon said she also received complaints about children’s books on display, including “Joey,” written by First Lady Jill Biden, and “Superheroes Are Everywhere” by Vice President Kamala Harris.

However, no formal complaint was made about those books.

“That puts library directors in an interesting position because if no one fills out a reconsideration form, there’s no way for a library to respond,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that everyone can have a right to their own opinion, but they don’t have a right to tell others what they can or cannot read.”

Instead of filing a formal complaint, some people would check out the books and not return them, McMahon said.

“Which is theft of materials,” McMahon said. “Then we had to go through a process to get them back. … We know the folks that had them out had been making complaints to other city officials and people around me without going through an actual process.”

Some residents also argued the library should have more books about former President Donald Trump on display, McMahon recalled.

“The Kamala (Harris) book was given to the library when she spoke there, and the ‘Joey’ book was a purchase request” from a library patron, McMahon said. “It was not deliberate.

“I can’t buy what doesn’t exist, and there weren’t quality books about Trump. It’s a long process to choose materials typically. We pay attention to reviews and publishers and our collection needs as a whole. We don’t just say what looks good on Amazon.”

McMahon said the way she was treated in Vinton quickly became more personal and uncomfortable, to the point she was no longer happy living in that community.

“When they refuse to make a formal complaint and not go through the process, it becomes side conversations constantly, and you can’t even stand up for yourself because you don’t know where it comes from,” she said. “It’s personal, and it’s not even about the job and that’s not OK.

“When I had had enough, we couldn’t function correctly as a library, so I decided to find a community that better fit me as a librarian and my standards for library ethics.”

Vinton library board members did not respond by the weekend to a request for comment.

Update to the story:

The Vinton Public Library, which lost two directors in two years amid community complaints over books, is now closed indefinitely as the interim director has left, too.

The previous directors left after city residents complained about the library’s display of LGBTQ books and books about Democratic President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

The library board met Tuesday to accept the resignation of Colton Neely, the interim director. Neely, formerly the library’s children’s director, will become a museum curator in Burlington. His last day — and the library’s last day to stay open for now — was Friday.

Vinton, a town of about 5,000 and the county seat of Benton County, will now be without its library for at least the next week, Library Board President Jimmy Kelly told The Gazette.

“As a board, we decided we are going to shut down the library for all of next week and use our meeting time next Wednesday to determine a pathway to provide limited hours and services until the new director is hired,” Kelly said.

The closing date for applications for the new library director was Friday as well.

“We’re hoping we can get a process moving quickly to identify a good candidate,” Kelly said. “It can sometimes take weeks or over a month to get a schedule in line, if the candidate has to put in two weeks at another job, different things.”

Most recently departing the library before Neely was Renee Greenlee, its director for six months. She had been the children’s and family services library assistant at the Marion Public Library and had worked at the Hiawatha Public Library and the Kirkwood Community College library.

Greenlee, who left the Vinton post in May and started a new job at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, declined to comment.

While the Vinton library board members accepted Greenlee’s resignation, they also adopted an ethics statement and new rules for the board’s public comment period. The ethics policy says, in part, that board members will respect colleagues’ opinions and will not be swayed by public pressure or fear of criticism.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s one more thing after the other and it’s been a slow progression,” Kelly said. “We totally understand with Colton … his training prior to this is in museums. It’ the perfect fit for him and the timing is how it happened.”

Vinton also saw another director, Janette McMahon, resign in July 2021. She now is director of the DeWitt Public Library in Clinton County.

McMahon previously told The Gazette that she received complaints about children’s books on display, including “Joey,” written by first lady Jill Biden, and “Superheroes Are Everywhere” by Vice President Kamala Harris. She said some residents argued the library should have more books about former Republican President Donald Trump on display.

“I can’t buy what doesn’t exist, and there weren’t quality books about Trump. It’s a long process to choose materials typically. We pay attention to reviews and publishers and our collection needs as a whole. We don’t just say what looks good on Amazon,” she told The Gazette last month.

However, no formal complaint was made about those books.

“A librarian is a public servant and they are not operating under a partisan agenda,” Kelly said. “But perception is reality to some people.”

Kelly said the board plans to set up better support for the next director.

“We could’ve done better with our previous directors, but we are going to set up our next director for success,” Kelly said.

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Gage Miskimen is a reporter for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Miskimen is a graduate of the University of Iowa where he also worked as the Metro Reporter for The Daily Iowan.

eporter, The Gazette

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The preceding combined article was originally published by The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and is republished by permission.

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Iowa

Iowa Supreme Court rules state discriminated against Trans employee

The first jury case brought under the Iowa Civil Rights Act since amended in 2007 to prohibit discrimination against trans people at work

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Jesse Vroegh with wife Jackie and their dog. (Photo Credit: ACLU of Iowa)

DES MOINES – The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday upheld a verdict by a jury in Polk County that the state had denied healthcare coverage for medically necessary gender-affirming surgery because of being a transgender person.

The Polk County jury found that Jesse Vroegh, a former Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) nurse, was also discriminated against when the DOC banned him from the men’s restrooms and locker room at his workplace.

Vroegh’s was the first such jury case brought under the Iowa Civil Rights Act since it was amended in 2007 to expressly prohibit discrimination against transgender people at work.
The state has since started providing this coverage for all employees, as required by both state and federal nondiscrimination laws.

 “I want to say thank you to those who have made this victory possible. I thank the Iowa Supreme Court for recognizing that transgender people should be treated equally under the law. I want to thank the ACLU and Melissa Hasso for representing me and helping me file this lawsuit. And I want to thank my wife, Jackie, who has stood by me and supported me in all of this. She is an amazing person,” Vroegh said in a statement adding:

“I am doing this so that other transgender people do not have to go through what I have. I am a nurse and I see on a regular basis how important it is for people to be treated equally when receiving medical care. It’s important for all people to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director noted:

“This is a historic victory for civil rights in Iowa, because it makes real the promise of nondiscrimination protections in employment that our legislature put in place for transgender Iowans in 2007.

“Despite those longstanding protections, Mr. Vroegh’s employer, the State of Iowa, repeatedly denied his requests to use the men’s restrooms and locker rooms consistent with his gender identity at work, and the state’s employee health insurance program excluded coverage for the medically necessary gender-affirming surgery for transgender employees, even though it covered the same procedures so long as they were not to treat gender dysphoria.

“The state should have been a model for other employers in its treatment of a transgender worker, but instead blatantly discriminated against Jesse, who only ever asked to be treated the same as his coworkers.”

Bettis Austen then added; “We are so grateful to Jesse Vroegh, our inspiring and brave client, for taking on this first-of-its kind legal battle in our state and doing so much to build support and change hearts and minds for those who will come after him. We are also grateful to the Iowa jurors who saw through the state’s discriminatory arguments and rendered justice for Jesse, and to the Iowa Supreme Court for upholding their verdict. The victory today simply would not have been possible without the stellar work of Iowa civil rights attorney Melissa Hasso, and John Knight, our co-counsel with the national ACLU LGBTQ Rights Project.”

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Iowa students walkout in protest over state’s anti-Trans youth sports law

The students protesting told ABC9 News the law discriminates against transgender students and isolates them

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Screenshot via ABC News affiliate KCRG 9 Cedar Rapids, Iowa

CEDAR RAPIDS – High school students upset over the new law signed by Republican Governor Kim Reynolds last week, that immediately bans transgender women and girls from playing on school sports teams that match their gender identity offered by Iowa public schools, colleges and universities, walked out of their classes Wednesday.

The bill also allows any student who alleges “direct or indirect harm as a result of a violation of the law’s requirement” to sue a school district, private school or high school athletic association if transgender girls are not banned from girls sports.

This bill marks the second anti-trans bill enacted in 2022, and the 11th state to pass an anti-trans sports ban.

ABC News affiliate KCRG 9 reported that the students at Cedar Rapids Washington High School walked out of class Wednesday morning to protest the state’s new law banning transgender athletes.

The students protesting told ABC9 News the law discriminates against transgender students and isolates them.

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