Two female high school students from California who were expelled on suspicion of being lesbians have filed a discrimination suit against the private Christian high school and the principal who ousted them, setting off a legal battle in the state over whether religious schools have the right to exclude homosexuals in order to uphold their religious teachings.
The lawsuit, filed on December 15 in Riverside Superior Court by both 16-year-old girls and their parents — all of whose identities are being kept under wraps by their attorneys — claims the California Lutheran School in Wildomar and its principal, Reverend Gregory Bork, violated the girls' civil rights when he grilled each of them separately in a closed room about their relationship and their sexual orientation without any parents or legal counsel present. The girls received a letter from Bork days later notifying them that they had been expelled from school and were not to return to campus.
The girls, who are now attending separate schools elsewhere, are suing for discrimination, invasion of privacy and unfair business practices, and are seeking unspecified monetary damages and an injunction that would bar the school from excluding gays and lesbians in the future.
Kirk D. Hanson, the girls' lawyer, says the expulsion was based strictly on the principal's speculation and has caused his clients humiliation and mental anguish. They are arguing the school has no right to discriminate against homosexuals as it operates as a business — since it provides educational services in exchange for tuition — and therefore, falls under the California Unruh Civil Rights Act that prohibits businesses from discriminating against people for various reasons including sexual orientation and even, as in this case, perceived sexual orientation. The girls have never admitted to being lesbians.
Bork's letter, a copy of which was included in the lawsuit, says that although school officials had not seen any open physical contact between the girls, "There is still a bond of intimacy which is uncharacteristic of normal girl relationships and is more characteristic of a lesbian one." He added that their relationship was "unchristian" and violated the school's Christian Code of Conduct.
The principal claimed he had no choice but to expel the girls; to let them keep attending and carrying on their behavior would have sent a message to students and parents that the school condoned homosexuality, which would not have been reflective of the institution's religious beliefs and principles.
"We have a spiritual and moral obligation to keep our students from sin, and thus, cannot allow anything to cause that to happen," he continued in the letter, noting that parents had also expressed concern about the issue and if he didn't "respond with proper discipline," the school could lose enrollment of current and future students.
The suit adds that it is against California law to expel students on "mere suspicion" the students may be homosexual because of a stated belief that homosexuality is against Christianity, while at the same time admitting students who practice religions outside of the Lutheran faith.
Via a spokesperson, Bork and the school would only say, "We're letting our lawyers handle it right now." Once the defendants make an appearance in the case, it will then be handed over to a trial judge, who will set a court date.
So far, there has been no established law on this issue and the outcome is likely to set a precedent and impact private Christian schools across California, according to Jenny Pizer, a senior counsel at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization that fights for the civil rights of gays and lesbians.
"What will make a difference is whether the school is incorporated as a religious institution or not," Pizer said. "Sometimes institutions will have very strong historical affiliations or traditions, but what would really matter is their legal status and whether they take public money, because that money usually comes with requirements to follow."
Religious schools do have special protection under the law, she adds, so anti-discrimination rules that would apply elsewhere would not always apply to them for the sake of protecting religion, but like Hanson said, if the school is acting as an employer and conducting business, even though it has a religious tradition, it is acting as a business and not as a church.
Standing up and speaking out is not easy at any age, says Pizer, who notes there has been a remarkable change in young people coming forward to fight for their rights in the last 10 years.
"It's been sort of an exciting phenomenon to see and it's really sending a message that students won't accept harassment as an unavoidable part of high school life," she said. "Students now know that they have it within their power to speak up and to insist that harassment be stopped."