Girls’ suit allowed to proceed
Two girls who were expelled by a Christian high school because the principal believed they were lesbians won the state Supreme Court’s permission to sue the school Wednesday in a case that tests the reach of California’s anti-discrimination law in a private religious academy.
The court unanimously denied review of an appeal by the California Lutheran High School Association, which argued that a religious school has a constitutional right to exclude gays and lesbians. Wednesday’s action did not resolve that issue but allowed the suit to proceed toward a possible trial.
The girls, both juniors at the school in the Riverside County town of Wildomar, were expelled in September. According to their lawsuit, which was filed in December, school Principal Gregory Bork said he had learned that the students might be involved in a relationship and coerced one of them into saying she loved the other one.
In a letter to the girls’ parents, Bork said the students had violated the school’s code of conduct, which prohibits actions “contrary to Christian decency.” The school is owned by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which considers homosexuality sinful.
The suit did not disclose the girls’ sexual orientation but said the school had violated California’s Unruh Act, which prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation. The school argues that it is not a business and is thus exempt from the law. It also says its constitutional rights would override any state law.
“Any implementation of the Unruh Act would contradict the stated position of (the school) that homosexuality is immoral,” John McKay, an attorney for the school, wrote in asking the state Supreme Court to halt the lawsuit.
In addition to freedom of religion, he said, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of association trumps any state law that “forces the group to accept members that it does not desire.” He cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling that allowed the Boy Scouts of America to exclude a gay man as a troop leader in New Jersey despite an anti-discrimination law in that state.
Christopher Hayes, lawyer for the two girls, said the school operates as a business, has students of various religions and should not be exempt from California’s civil rights laws.
“Nothing about accepting these young women or other perceived or actual homosexuals has any effect on anybody at the school’s ability to preach their religion, to practice their religion or to criticize lifestyle choices,” Hayes said.
A Superior Court judge ruled in March that the two girls may be able to show that the school violated the Unruh Act and their right to privacy if they can prove the allegations in their suit. A state appeals court refused to intervene last month, and the school then appealed to the state’s high court.
The case is California Lutheran High School Association vs. Superior Court, S144411.