Christians attack tolerance policies


ATLANTA -- Ruth Malhotra went to court last month for the right to be intolerant.

Malhotra says her Christian faith compels her to speak out against homosexuality. But the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she's a senior, bans speech that puts down others because of sexual orientation.

Malhotra sees that as an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression. She's demanding that Georgia Tech revoke its tolerance policy.

With her lawsuit, the 22-year-old student joins a growing campaign to force public schools, state colleges and private workplaces to eliminate policies protecting homosexuals from harassment.

Opponents aim to overturn common tolerance programs: diversity training that promotes acceptance of gays and lesbians, speech codes that ban harsh words against homosexuality, anti-discrimination policies that require college clubs to open membership to all.

The Rev. Rick Scarborough, a leading evangelical, frames the movement as the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. "Christians are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian," he said.

In that spirit, the Christian Legal Society, an association of judges and lawyers, has formed a national group to challenge tolerance policies in federal court. Several nonprofit law firms - backed by ministries such as Focus on the Family and Campus Crusade for Christ - take such cases for free.

Their legal argument is that policies intended to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination end up discriminating against conservative Christians.

Evangelicals have been suspended for wearing anti-gay T-shirts to high school, fired for denouncing Gay Pride Month at work and reprimanded for refusing to attend diversity training. When they protest tolerance codes, they are labeled intolerant.

A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that 64 percent of American adults - including 80 percent of evangelical Christians - agreed with the statement "Religion is under attack in the U.S."

"The message is, you're free to worship as you like, but don't you dare talk about it outside the four walls of your church," said Stephen Crampton, chief counsel for the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy, which represents Christians who feel harassed.

Critics dismiss such talk as a right-wing fundraising ploy.

"They're trying to develop a persecution complex," said Jeremy Gunn, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Others fear that the banner of religious liberty could be used to justify harassment.

"What if a person felt their religious view was that African-Americans shouldn't mingle with Caucasians or that women shouldn't work?" asked Jon Davidson, legal director of the gay-rights group Lambda Legal.

Christian activist Gregory S. Baylor responds angrily to such criticism. He supports policies that protect people from discrimination based on race and gender. But he draws a distinction that infuriates gay-rights activists when he argues that sexual orientation is different.

By equating homosexuality with race, Baylor said, tolerance policies put conservative evangelicals in the same category as racists.

He foresees the possibility that the government might revoke the tax-exempt status of churches preaching that homosexuality is sinful or that refuse to hire gays and lesbians.

In their lawsuit against Georgia Tech, Malhotra and her co-plaintiff, Jewish student Orit Sklar, request unspecified damages.

Their main goal, they say, is to force the university to be more tolerant of religious viewpoints. The lawsuit was filed by the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on religious liberty cases.

Malhotra said she had been reprimanded by college deans several times for expressing conservative religious and political views. When she protested a campus production of The Vagina Monologues with a display condemning feminism, the administration asked her to paint over part of it.

Malhotra caused a stir with a letter to gay activists who organized Coming Out Week in the fall of 2004. Malhotra sent the letter on behalf of the Georgia Tech College Republicans, which she chairs. Several members of the group's executive board helped write it, she said.

The letter referred to the campus gay-rights group Pride Alliance as a "sex club ... that can't even manage to be tasteful." It went on to say that it was "ludicrous" for Georgia Tech to help fund the Pride Alliance.

Stephanie Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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