Constitutional Law

Law students and professor who oppose same-sex marriage settle speech case with school

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A First Amendment action brought against the University of Idaho by Christian Legal Society members who believe the Bible rejects same-sex marriage has settled for $90,000.

The case involves a Christian Legal Society prayer circle at a law school community meeting that was held after someone left a gay slur on a law school whiteboard. An ABA accreditation site visit figures in as well, according to the action.

It was brought by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of 2L Ryan Alexander, 3L Mark Miller, 2022 graduate Peter Perlot and Richard Seamon, a professor at the law school.

Miller and Alexander serve as president and vice president, respectively, of the campus’ Christian Legal Society chapter; Seamon is the club’s adviser. Another law student, identified as Ms. Doe, claimed the plaintiffs’ actions at a community meeting made her feel unsafe, and in response the university sent no-contact orders to Alexander, Miller and Perlot, according to the complaint. Doe is not a party in the lawsuit.

The Idaho U.S. District Court action also alleged due process violations.

To be an officer in the Christian Legal Society, one must “renounce unbiblical behaviors,” the complaint states. Such behaviors include deception, malicious speech, getting drunk, abusing drugs, stealing, cheating, using pornography and having sexual relations “other than within a marriage between one man and one woman,” according to the Christian Legal Society community life statement.

During the community meeting, Doe asked about the group’s marriage position, and they cited the Bible as a response, according to the complaint. Afterward, Perlot left a handwritten note for Doe inviting her to a Christian Legal Society event, or to talk to him if she wanted to know more about the organization, the complaint states.

According to the plaintiffs, who claim to have sincerely held religious beliefs that do not support same-sex marriage, they are motived to “share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

A week after the community meeting, a panel from the office of the ABA’s managing director of Accreditation and Legal Education was on campus for a regular comprehensive site visit. Students were invited to speak, and several, including Doe, said some Christian Legal Society students “had religious beliefs that were bigoted and anti-LGBTQ+,” according to the complaint. It also claims Doe told the panel she personally experienced bigotry, and she accused some Christian Legal Society members of telling her “to go to hell.” Plaintiffs deny that in the lawsuit.

Plaintiff Alexander also spoke to the panel, stating he was concerned about religious freedom on campus, according to the complaint.

Shortly after the site visit, Alexander, Miller and Perlot received the no-contact orders. According to the lawsuit, the university’s Office of Civil Rights and Investigations did not interview Alexander or Perlot before issuing the orders.

A month after Alexander, Miller and Perlot received no-contact orders, Seamon, who taught Doe’s constitutional law class, was directed by the university to have limited contact with her. According to the complaint, he emailed Doe after the community meeting.

“Because of my involvement in the events as faculty adviser to CLS and my care for you as a student in my class, I felt a need to reach out to you to listen and offer support in any way I can. Please let me know if you’d like to talk about it sometime,” Seamon wrote, according to the lawsuit.

Doe thanked him and said she would talk with him during office hours, but did not, the complaint states. It states she attended the remainder of his classes virtually.

Seamon, who told the ABA Journal he had no comment for the story, sent another email to Doe on April 26, according to the complaint. He wrote that he was sorry if what happened caused people pain or offended them, and he’d be “grateful” to hear any thoughts she had about how he could help students feel comfortable, the action states.

Doe responded the next day, according to the complaint, and her communication included the law school’s dean and associate dean. She wrote that what happened at the community meeting event caused her to fear for her life, she was afraid to be on campus and in his class, according to the lawsuit. She also wrote that she feared her grades and law school career were not safe, “with a professor that is actively working towards taking away my human rights,” the complaint states.

Additionally, Doe wrote that if Seamon continued to email her, she would go to the police for a restraining order, according to the complaint.

In June a federal judge granted a plaintiff motion to lift the no-contact orders, after determining they showed a likelihood of prevailing on arguments the university violated their First Amendment and due process rights.

Seamon did not join the other plaintiffs in their motion to have the orders lifted. He intends to seek admission to the Idaho bar and fears any discipline against him could jeopardize his chances, as well as future academic opportunities, according to the complaint.

The order granting the parties joint motion to dismiss was entered Dec. 5. It states that each party will pay their own attorney fees. Jodi Walker, the university’s co-chief marketing officer and executive director of communications and marketing, confirmed in an email that the settlement is for $90,000.

“This case, for us, has always been about safe access to education, which is paramount. This settlement achieves all of those objectives,” she wrote.

Members of OutLaw, a campus organization that provides education about LGBTQ+ issues, told the ABA Journal it disagrees with the facts presented in the amended complaint and the judge’s decision to lift the court order. A statement addresses the community meeting.

“Students, like most attendees, expected the event to affirm LGBTQ+ students and many were hurt when some took the opportunity to express personal beliefs that effectively contradicted the event’s purpose and expressly targeted students with hurtful speech. We hoped then, and continue to hope now, that the law school will be an affirming place for all students,” the group wrote.

Meanwhile, the ADF sees the settlement as a vindication.

“Universities cannot punish students and professors simply for peacefully expressing their viewpoints on campus, and we are grateful the court recognized that,” the organization wrote in a statement.

Another civil rights lawsuit against the university, brought by law professor Shaakirrah Sanders, is ongoing. Sanders, a Black woman, in 2019 brought discrimination claims against the university on the basis she was unfairly denied an associate dean position and a stipend. In 2021 a U.S. district judge denied the university’s motion for summary judgment on Sanders’ gender and race discrimination claims. A 10-day jury trial, in October, resulted in a <a href=”mistrial, after the jurors could not reach a verdict. Change of venue motions are pending, according to court records.

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