Religious freedom and LGBTQ rights collide in schools and campuses, and the courts are deciding

Disputes over religious freedom and LGBTQ rights in the United States have given rise to some of the highest-profile court controversies, and 2022 is no exception. For example, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on December 5 about whether a designer can refuse to create wedding websites for same-sex couples; a ruling is likely to be issued by the end of June 2023.

Lately, many of these controversies have started in educational settings, both in K-12 schools and on college campuses. What education law professor Who often writes about First Amendment issues in schools, I see these cases, which are trying to balance tensions between fundamental rights, as potentially shaping new precedents.

cases in Yeshiva Universitya private Orthodox Jewish school in New York City, and Seattle Pacific University, a small Christian school, have been in the news, but they are not the only examples. Similar concerns arose at Indiana’s Catholic high schools, where courts upheld firings of employees in same-sex marriages, as well as at Samford University in Alabama, where campus officials denied a student application to form a club for law students who are LGBTQ.

Seal of approval

The dispute at Yeshiva University arose when officials rejected the application of YU Pride Alliance for official recognition, saying it was incompatible with the religious values ​​of the school.

Pride Alliance filed a lawsuit alleging that the university violated a provision of the New York City Human Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. After a state trial court rejected Yeshiva’s defense that it should be exempt as a religious institution, the school appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted a brief stay of order on September 9, 2022.

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However, five days later, the Supreme Court vacated the stay: In other words, the judges refused to block the order for Yeshiva officials to recognize the club.

The court did not address the merits of the claims, but told university officials they must exhaust other avenues of appeal in state courts before they can ask the Supreme Court to decide. Still, four justices dissented, their concern for the case clear.

Members of the US Supreme Court
Members of the US Supreme Court pose for a photo on September 30, 2022 in the Justices’ Conference Room. From left: Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and Brett Kavanaugh. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

“The First Amendment guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion, and if that provision means anything, it prohibits a State from enforcing its own preferred interpretation of Holy Scripture,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his dissent. Joined by judges Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, Alito added: “Yet that is exactly what New York has done.”

Rather than comply with the order, the Yeshiva administration suspended all student clubs while it continued to fight the case. soon offered his own official club, saying it was for LGBTQ students “who strive to live authentic Torah lives.” The dispute persists, however, because Pride Alliance keep looking for recognition.

A 2010 Supreme Court case, Christian Law Society v. Martinez, provides a useful precedent regarding student groups. In a 5-4 decision, the justices decided that officials at a public law school in California could implement a policy requiring a group of religious students to admit “all comers,” meaning everyone who is interested. , even if they don’t agree with your core beliefs.

Now, the Yeshiva and Samford disputes are testing the limits of that precedent, albeit with a twist. While the 2010 case involved the actions of student groups, these controversies involve employers’ religious beliefs and actions, which are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

hiring and firing

The second set of recent cases involves employment, specifically, whether faith-based high school officials can fire staff for marriages that violate their beliefs.

In three separate Indiana cases, courts upheld the firings of a supervising guidance counselor, another guidance counselor and a teacher at Roman Catholic high schools who married same-sex spouses.

the Seventh Circuit Courtthe Indiana Supreme Court and a federal trial court they largely based their judgments on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on a variety of personal characteristics, such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. in 2020 Bostock v. Clayton Countythe Supreme Court interpreted Title VII as extending protection against employment discrimination to gay and transgender people.

Most notable of these controversies, however, is that Title VII grants far-reaching exceptions for faith-based employers.

Generally known as the ‘ministerial exception’, this provision allows officials of religious institutions to fire people who do not abide by the dictates of the employer’s faith, or not to hire them in the first place.

Usually known as the “ministerial exception”, this provision allows officials of religious institutions to fire people who do not comply with the dictates of the employer’s faith, or not to hire them in the first place.

To be excluded from the scope of Title VII, employees need not serve in formal ordained ministerial positions. Still, employers must prove that the duties of those employees are integrally related to the institutional spiritual missions. In the Indiana cases, the courts found that school officials had met that requirement.

A similar dispute arose at Seattle Pacific University in Washington state, where employees and students challenged a campus policy ban employees from same-sex marriages. Following the discrimination lawsuit filed against campus officials, the school presented his own case to prevent the state attorney general’s office from investigating whether the charges have merit. A federal trial court rejected that attemptand the investigation continues.

Although not yet litigated, a similar controversy in Pennsylvania reached a different outcome, revealing a different perspective on the rights of LGBTQ employees on campus. The controversy arose in May 2022 when officials at Eastern College, which is affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA, they reversed their policy not to hire or retain LGBTQ employees, adding sexual orientation to its employment nondiscrimination policy. As a result, Eastern put his membership on the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. endangered because council officials said member policies should align with “the historic Christian view of marriage.”

The sensitive issues underlying these disputes go to the very heart of what it means to be human: how people and organizations can live in ways consistent with their personal values ​​and needs, and how to balance religious freedom with nondiscrimination. These controversies deserve to be watched closely, I think, because they are likely to have a profound impact on the shape of American society and the education of the next generation.

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