Christian group sues U. of Ariz. for support

Law school chapter plans to exclude non-Christians, practicing homosexuals

December 30, 2004|By Vincent J. Schodolski | Vincent J. Schodolski,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TEMPE, Ariz. - A legal confrontation is playing out here as a student organization seeks official recognition and money from a state-run university even though the students plan to exclude non-Christians and gays.

A group of Christian students at Arizona State University's law school formed a chapter of the Christian Legal Society, a national organization that unites Christian lawyers and law students for fellowship, mutual legal support, meetings and Bible readings.

After the university refused to recognize the group, the society's national headquarters in Washington, D.C., drafted a lawsuit challenging the university over its anti-discrimination policies, a move that echoes similar and sometimes successful efforts across the country.

FOR THE RECORD - A headline in Thursday's Sun misidentified the university that has prompted a lawsuit by refusing to recognize a student organization, the Christian Legal Society. It is Arizona State University.

In the lawsuit, the society argues that the members at Arizona State have a constitutionally protected right to organize and receive university recognition under the First and 14th amendments.

Members of the Christian Legal Society must sign a statement of faith, a document that essentially is the Apostles' Creed. In the declaration, members attest to their faith in God and also say the Bible is the "inspired word of God."

Based on their interpretation of biblical passages on homosexuality, members draw the groundwork to exclude practicing homosexuals from membership. In the federal lawsuit, lawyers from the Christian Legal Society spell out their position.

The society at "ASU interprets its statement of faith to require that officers adhere to orthodox Christian beliefs, including the Bible's prohibition of sexual contact between persons of the same sex," the suit says.

"A person who engages in homosexual conduct or adheres to the viewpoint that homosexual conduct is not sinful would not be permitted to become a member or serve as an officer" of the group at Arizona State, the suit says.

It goes on to say that a person who has engaged in homosexual acts but has "repented" or people who might have homosexual inclination but do not act on that inclination would be eligible for membership.

M. Casey Mattox, litigation counsel for the Christian Legal Society in Washington, said the group asked Arizona State to exempt the chapter from having to comply with university policies that required nondiscrimination against people on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.

Nancy Tribbensee, a staff attorney for the university, said Arizona State will not grant the exemption. "We are aggressively defending" the nondiscrimination policy, she said.

Tribbensee said the university was drafting its response to the society's complaint, which is due to be filed by tomorrow.

While Tribbensee said the school has no intention of settling with the group, the Christian Legal Society has been successful in previous attempts to get schools to grant exemptions.

In a recent case at Ohio State University, officials ultimately allowed a chapter to form and be recognized and let the group refuse membership to non-Christians and homosexuals.

"It ended up in our changing our policy," said Amy Murray, assistant director of media relations at Ohio State.

Murray said the university, after reviewing the society's complaint, revised its nondiscrimination policy to allow religious groups to establish their own policies regarding discrimination.

Some legal experts say the constitutional argument used by society lawyers is fairly solid and the Ohio State officials probably concluded they would lose.

Richard Myers, a professor at the Ave Maria School of Law, a Roman Catholic institution in Ann Arbor, Mich., likened the society's legal argument to those used by the Boy Scouts of America. He referred to a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the organization had the right to exclude homosexuals from being Scoutmasters.

"It is kind of standard for these kinds of exceptions," he said. "If they [universities] apply it only to religious groups, they have a slam-dunk case. This group [CLS] provides a different perspective and should be allowed to do so."

But other lawyers say that giving public money to a group that discriminates is illegal and morally wrong.

"They are forcing taxpayers to underwrite discrimination," said David Tseng, a Washington attorney who has specialized in nondiscrimination law. "The endorsement of discrimination is appalling."

Tseng, formerly executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said the use of public money was the crucial factor and tax money should be spent to advance the public good.

The members of the Christian Legal Society "have the right to meet and to organize, but the example we are setting for students is that bigotry is acceptable," he said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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