Court: Talking about religion is not harassment
A university’s issuance of no-contact orders violated free speech, judge says
A federal court on Thursday ruled that the University of Idaho violated the free speech rights of three Christian law students by directing them not to have any contact with a classmate who disagreed with their views on marriage and sexuality.
In a 31-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge David Nye chided school administrators for unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. “Some may disagree with plaintiffs’ religious beliefs,” wrote Nye. “Such is each person’s prerogative and right. But none should disagree that Plaintiffs have a right to express their religious beliefs without fear of retribution. The Constitution makes that clear.”
The three students—Peter Perlot, Mark Miller, and Ryan Alexander, along with other members of Christian Legal Society (CLS)—attended an April 1 event in support of the LGBTQ community after an anti-LGBTQ slur was left on a campus whiteboard. The student, described as female and queer, approached the students as they prayed and asked why the CLS affirms that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Miller explained that CLS adhered to the Biblical view that marriage is defined as being between one man and one woman. Perlot later left a note for the student, offering to listen and respond to any questions she may have. “I’m the president of CLS this semester,” wrote Perlot. “Feel free to come talk to me if you have anything you need to say or questions you want to ask.”
Three days later, on April 4, an investigator interviewed Miller about the incident. After three additional days, administrators issued no-contact orders against the three students and the CLS faculty advisor, Richard Seamon. The law professor, who had done nothing more than assent to the CLS view of marriage, followed up with the student, asking her if she wanted to talk. In an email, she declined.
“Your event caused me to fear for my life at the university of Idaho,” the student wrote. “I am scared to be on campus, I am scared to be in your class. I fear you. I fear the CLS. My life, my grades, my law school career are not safe with a professor that is actively working towards taking away my human rights.”
In striking down the no-contact orders, Nye noted the disparity between how school administrators handled the views of pro-LGBTQ students and CLS members. He pointed to one popular sentiment given voice in a sign a law professor posted saying, “At this public university your personal religious beliefs are not an excuse to deprive others of their rights under the law.”
“The assumption such phrases implicate is that people use their religion to mask discriminatory conduct and then try to ‘hide’ from any legal consequences by invoking religious protection,” Nye wrote. He called it a “shallow” view of religion that undercut constitutional rights.
It also fails to constitute “harassment” under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, Nye ruled. The students’ actions were not “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that they impaired the female student’s access to her education. There is a “difference between disagreeable speech and harassing speech,” Nye wrote.
Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Mathew Hoffmann said that while the no-contact orders have been set aside, the case remains open and the university could choose to go to trial, settle, or directly appeal the order. He said he hoped administrators would learn from the ruling.
“Expressing your religious views isn’t discrimination,” he said, adding that while his clients did not wish to offend the student who complained, “that doesn’t mean the university can silence them.”
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