Wednesday, January 23, 2008

California Judge Holds Christian High School Exempt from State Civil Rights Law

The principal of California Luthern High School did not violate civil rights of two female students when he expelled them on suspicion of their lesbian relationship, said a California judge earlier this week. Specifically, Judge Gloria Trask held that the state's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which governs private entities who are employers or provide public accommodations, does not cover private, religious schools.

According to this report in the North County Times, Judge Trask reasoned that the First Amendment protects a school's right to educate students on the basis of Christian beliefs and that their freedom of association trumps civil rights law. The paper also reports that the students' lawyer plans to argue on appeal that the Unruh Act applies because the school is in the business of providing education for a fee.

It will be interesting to see what happens to this case on appeal, especially if it the dispute really is about freedom of association. The conflict between a private organization's freedom of association and the public's interest in civil rights is controversial area of law. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Boy Scouts' associational right to promote among its members its beliefs about homosexuality trumps a scoutmaster's right not to be fired on the basis of his sexual orientation. But courts generally approach these conflicts in a very case-specific way, asking how strong is the particular associational interest in question and how intrusive it would be for the association to comply with the antidiscrimination law in question (the Second Circuit's decision in the Chi Iota case is illustrative). A private Christian school can likely make a persuasive case that it has a strong interest in promoting Christian values among its members. But it's not so clear that it is necessary to expel suspected lesbian students -- who, unlike a scoutmaster, are not in a "role model" position -- in order to promote that belief.