By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 26, 2016
A Catholic high school in Tennessee is facing a discrimination lawsuit from a gay former student banned from attending a formal dance in 2015.
Lance Sanderson’s lawsuit claims Christian Brothers High School (CBHS) in Memphis violated multiple non-discrimination laws when it prohibited him from bringing a same-gender date to the school’s homecoming dance last year. NBC News reported:
“With his lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Circuit Court, Sanderson is seeking up to $1 million from CBHS on several state and federal claims — including breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent training and a violation under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments.”
Sanderson was suspended when he returned to CBHS on the Monday following the homecoming dance which he elected not to attend. School officials told him at the time that they did not “appreciate the unwarranted publicity.” Sanderson’s supporters had organized under #LetLanceDance, and a Change.org petition gathered nearly 28,000 signatures, but to no avail. Facing bullying from administrators and students alike, Sanderson completed senior year through online coursework and missed graduation. He is now studying at DePaul University, a very supportive Catholic institution in Chicago.
The lawsuit claims CBHS’s decision about Sanderson’s male date request was discriminatory, as was their subsequent actions. The suit includes new details about the aforementioned events, too. Sanderson’s lawyers pointed out the CBHS code of conduct explicitly includes sexual orientation among protected classes, so that all students will “feel safe, secured and accepted.” This was not the case, however:
“Days before the homecoming dance, however, the school began to broadcast daily messages over the intercom that students were not allowed to bring boys from other schools as dates.
“With each announcement, the lawsuit states, Sanderson ‘felt bullied by both the school administration and by some of the students.’
” ‘As a private school, CBHS held itself out to be nondiscriminatory with regard to sexual orientation,’ Sanderson’s attorney, Manis, said. ‘In our eyes, it seems very clear those were hollow words … They were not interested in treating [Sanderson] the same as other students.'”
Most significantly, Sanderson is claiming violations of Title IX, the federal civil rights law which prohibits sex discrimination in education. This law traditionally focused on equality in education for women, but has been interpreted under President Barack Obama’s administration to protect LGBT students, too. If successful, Sanderson’s lawsuit could build upon the 2015 favorable ruling involving a private institution, Pepperdine University, thus establishing a stronger precedent. NBC reported:
“Notably, Pepperdine — like CBHS — is a private institution that receives additional federal funds, and Sanderson’s legal team is hoping that case will serve as an important precedent for theirs.
” ‘We have confirmation that CBHS receives federal funding and also potentially state funding for certain programs at the school,’ Howard Manis, one of Sanderson’s lawyers, said. ‘That makes them responsible for following the letter of the law under Title IX.’ “
Having graduated and begun college, Sanderson’s lawsuit is not about directly rectifying the situation for him at CBHS. His appeal last year to administrators, in a letter where he said he had not “done anything wrong” nor “hurt anybody” but simply wanted to be treated equally, went unheard. Sanderson told NBC that he is taking action now because he really does not “want anyone else to go through what I went through this year.”
Even if we leave the legal issues involved in discrimination cases and religious entities to the lawyers, it should be clear that Catholic institutions, because of their religious values, should not discriminate. This is especially true when they explicitly claim to welcome marginalized communities, as CBHS did in its code of conduct.
Rather than waiting for the lawsuit to play out, at great time and expense for all involved, school officials should offer an apology and take concrete steps to ensure no discrimination against LGBT students, faculty, or staff will occur in the future. And at this year’s homecoming, they should welcome Lance and let him dance as one of their newest alumni.