Will Anti-Gay Speech Get a Religious Pass?

There hasn't been much coverage of a federal lawsuit (large pdf file) by the Alliance Defense Fund on behalf of two students (one Christian, one Jewish) at Georgia Tech against school officials, saying that the public university's anti-hate-speech policy amounts to religious indoctrination, and an infringement of the students' rights of free speech and religious expression. The Los Angeles Times is the first MSM news outlet to cover the lawsuit story (since picked up by its sister Tribune Co. outlets and by UPI).

[One of the students, Ruth] 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 their sexual orientation. Malhotra sees that as an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression. So she's demanding that Georgia Tech revoke its tolerance policy.

The legal argument is straightforward: 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, reprimanded for refusing to attend diversity training. When they protest tolerance codes, they're labeled intolerant.

This is just one salvo in a long-running battle pitting the right of certain conservative Christian groups to "witness" against homosexuals, against the rights of public institutions to ban discrimination and hate speech, and the rights of employers to restrict its employees from insulting prospective customers and their co-workers.

As they step up their legal campaign, conservative Christians face uncertain prospects. The 1st Amendment guarantees Americans "free exercise" of religion. In practice, though, the ground rules shift depending on the situation.

In a 2004 case, for instance, an AT&T Broadband employee won the right to express his religious convictions by refusing to sign a pledge to "respect and value the differences among us." As long as the employee wasn't harassing co-workers, the company had to make accommodations for his faith, a federal judge in Colorado ruled.

That same year, however, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that Hewlett-Packard Co. was justified in firing an employee who posted Bible verses condemning homosexuality on his cubicle. The verses, clearly visible from the hall, harassed gay employees and made it difficult for the company to meet its goal of attracting a diverse workforce, the judge ruled.

In the public schools, an Ohio middle school student last year won the right to wear a T-shirt that proclaimed: "Homosexuality is a sin! Islam is a lie! Abortion is murder!" But a teen-ager in Kentucky lost in federal court when he tried to exempt himself from a school program on gay tolerance on the grounds that it violated his religious beliefs.

It's a tricky interpretation of what religious freedom is, and how far it should be accommodated. One of the things the Georgia Tech lawsuit objects to is the school's Safe Place, a voluntary program to help gay, lesbian and transgender students. Specifically at issue is the part of the program's training manual that briefly summarizes the views of major religious denominations toward homosexuality. This constitutes "religious counseling, instruct[ing] community members in what they believe is the correct interpretation of holy texts on issues of homosexuality, promot[ing] the beliefs of religions that favor homosexual behavior and denigrate religions that oppose this behavior," according to a story on the Campus Leadership Program site, sympathetic to the students.

(FWIW, a lot of traditional, mainstream Christian denominations don't agree with the "right" to denounce gay people. For example, though the Roman Catholic Church rejects homosexual behavior, our catechism specifically says that gay people themselves "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.")

Back to the LAT story, which quotes Gregory S. Baylor, director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom at the Christian Legal Society, that he supports policies that protect people from discrimination based on race and gender, but not sexual orientation.

By equating homosexuality with race, Baylor said, tolerance policies put conservative evangelicals in the same category as racists. He predicts the government will one day revoke the tax-exempt status of churches that preach homosexuality is sinful or that refuse to hire gays and lesbians.

"Think how marginalized racists are.... If we don't address this now, it will only get worse."