Catholic University Open to Lawsuit Under New D.C. Non-Discrimination Law

The District of Columbia’s new law barring LGBT discrimination by religiously affiliated schools went into effect yesterday, opening the door for Catholic University of America students to challenge that school’s decade-long denial of an LGBT student group.

D.C. City Council passed the Human Rights Amendment Act last year, which, in part, repealed an existing law commonly known as the “Armstrong Amendment.” For decades, this amendment has exempted religious schools from the District’s extensive non-discrimination laws regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.

It has been the legal grounds on which President John Garvey repeatedly denied recognition of CUAllies, an LGBT student group at Catholic University. Now these grounds no longer exist. Even a congressional move to repeal the new DC Human Rights Amendment Act failed recently.  CUAllies’ leadership is weighing options, according to MetroWeekly:

“Following Congress’s decision, Natasha Backman, a graduating senior at Catholic and the head of CUAllies, expressed hope that the prohibition on discrimination would encourage university administrators to work more collaboratively to reach an understanding with CUAllies as to its official status and ability to access university resources.

“Backman isn’t naive — she pointed out that university administrators at Catholic have relished being confrontational and are quick to react to any perceived slight or action that they feel defies Church teaching — and nor has she taken any options off the table when it comes to legal action.”

CUAllies member Steve Morris, a sophomore who also heads the College Republicans on campus, commented:

” ‘We have seen the school’s lack of logical and moral case catch up with their lack of legal case for denying CUAllies recognition…The only people who have anything to fear from debate are those who can’t stand strong in their beliefs.’ “

The University, however, is holding firm. The administration’s spokesperson, Victor Nakas, said CUA is ready for a court battle and would “expect to prevail” under First Amendment protections. President Garvey, in a Washington Post opinion piece co-authored with Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl, echoed this promised legal challenge.

The Human Rights Amendment was passed alongside the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, which prevents religious employers from discriminating based upon an employee’s reproductive decisions. Implementation of both laws was delayed given the U.S. Congress’ 30-day review, during which Republicans introduced disapproval resolutions against both laws that would have nullified them. House leadership did not vote on the Human Rights Amendment and a similar resolution introduced by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) went nowhere in that the chamber, reports The Washington Blade.

Catholic bishops wrote letters supporting nullification efforts, grounding their arguments in an apparent attack on religious liberty that these laws perpetuate. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton suggested that Republicans may attack the new non-discrimination laws during this summer’s appropriations process, as they have previously done when disagreeing with D.C. City Council legislation.

President Garvey and fellow administrators should pause in this moment, considering their students’ needs as the foremost priority rather than pursuing further congressional intervention or legal challenges. Sacrificing students’ well-being for partisan campaigning is what really undermines the school’s Catholic identity, not the fostering of a welcoming and inclusive campus environment.

As a former CUAllies leader, I have firsthand experience about how hostile the campus can be for LGBTQ students and how few pastoral resources exist. D.C.’s new law is a perfect moment to reset relations with CUAllies and set a new course at Catholic University. In the absence of such outreach, however, the 1980’s lawsuit forcing Georgetown University to care for LGBT students should be instructive for CUAllies leadership. This time, there is no religious exemption behind which Catholic University can hide as it shirks its Gospel commitments.

For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of CUAllies and other LGBT efforts in Catholic higher education, see the “Campus Chronicles” category to the right.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

5 thoughts on “Catholic University Open to Lawsuit Under New D.C. Non-Discrimination Law

  1. Diane McKinley May 4, 2015 / 7:50 am

    During the late ’70’s the campus seemed open and welcoming to me as an undergrad student. Our religion classes were provocative and cutting edge, forcing us to stretch our boundaries, to love as Christ loved, even if uncomfortable. Where has that spirit gone?

  2. Friends May 4, 2015 / 10:29 pm

    I’m distressed, but not surprised, to hear about such negative attitudes at CU. Virtually all of the Jesuit-managed Catholic colleges and universities host strong GLBTQ social groups, for both their students and their alumni. My own undergraduate college, Holy Cross, hosts both — and I’m an active member of the HC Alumni GALA group. But apparently CU is the proverbial “horse of a different color” — probably because there is no dominant socially-progressive religious order controlling the place. So it’s being stalked by the local right-wing diocesan bishop. The location of executive control really makes a difference. The extreme-right-wing bishop of Worcester, MA has also attempted to cause trouble for Holy Cross. But the Jesuits have largely and successfully resisted his attempted restraints. And he also seems to have been significantly silenced, following his conviction for leaving the scene of an automobile accident which he caused while DUI. As John Lennon declared: “Instant Karma Gonna Getcha”! My love and prayers abide with the fabulous students at CU. The future of the Church genuinely rests upon their shoulders.

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