... or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

firstamendmentThe California Lutheran High School Association, which owns and operates a private religious high school in Riverside, expelled two students on the grounds that they had a homosexual relationship in violation of the school's "Christian Conduct" rule. The girls sued the school and its principal and alleged, among other things, that the school had discriminated against them on the basis of their sexual orientation, in violation of a California Civil Rights Act. Because the school was deemed not to be a business enterprise, as required by the Unrugh Civil Rights Act, the court upheld a lower court's ruling in its favor.

The story was covered in a rather straightforward manner by the Los Angeles Times, laying out the ruling before getting commentary:

Kirk D. Hanson, who represented the girls, said the "very troubling" ruling would permit private schools to discriminate against anyone, as long as the schools used their religious beliefs as justification.

"It is almost like it could roll back 20 to 30 years of progress we have made in this area," said the San Diego attorney. "Basically, this decision gives private schools the license to discriminate."

John McKay, who represented the Riverside County-based California Lutheran High School, said the ruling correctly acknowledged that the school's purpose was to "teach Christian values in a Christian setting pursuant to a Christian code of conduct."

The story notes that the school is affiliated with Lutheran synods that view homosexuality as sinful. It doesn't specify which synods were involved or whether the Christian code of conduct at the school was explicit.

The school is affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, both of which have clearly articulated doctrinal statements about sex, same-sex relationships and other associated issues. The court noted that the school's Christian Conduct rule states that students could be expelled for engaging in immoral or scandalous conduct, as defined by those synods.

All of this is rather dry, of course. We get just a touch of interesting theological commentary before it's dropped:

Shannon Price Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the ruling was based on "the particular circumstances of this school."

"Labeling a young person or telling her she is 'sinful' can be psychologically devastating," Minter said. "Regardless of one's religious beliefs, all adults have a responsibility to treat young people with compassion and respect."

Well if that's not pregnant with possibility!

You can't know much about Lutheranism if you think that this quote from Minter doesn't have a million responses. I went to a (Missouri Synod) Lutheran school and I can assure you that sin is pretty much a daily topic of discussion. I have many recess hours of "standing on the line" to back that up (Zion Lutheran -- Terra Bella's stucco walls are deeply embedded in my memory and yet I consider my old school's treatment of sin and punishment to have been compassionate and respectful). But the story simply says "school officials weren't available to comment."

Sure, fine. But there are millions of Lutherans -- and people knowledgeable about Lutheran doctrine -- who can address the Lutheran approach to sin. Go ahead and put them in the story if you're going to enter the sinful fray. It actually makes for a much more interesting religion story.

The San Francisco Chronicle also wrote up the story, bringing out some other interesting elements:

A private religious high school can expel students it believes are lesbians because the school isn't covered by California civil rights laws, a state appeals court has ruled.

Relying on a 1998 state Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude gays and atheists, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Bernardino said California Lutheran High School is a social organization entitled to follow its own principles, not a business subject to state anti-discrimination laws.

"The whole purpose of sending one's child to a religious school is to ensure that he or she learns even secular subjects within a religious framework," Justice Betty Richli said in the 3-0 ruling, issued Monday.

Because of the way the law works, the ruling is an affirmation of a lower court ruling and a response to the plaintiff's case. But it's interesting that the ruling isn't that church schools have sacred First Amendment rights -- it's that the California civil rights law doesn't cover social organizations. One wonders what might happen if there was a shift in California civil rights law definitions or interpretations, particularly as this case is sure to go forth to the California Supreme Court.

The story did a good job of presenting arguments for the school's rights as well as the girls' rights and how the ruling came down in favor of the former. I'll note that it failed to identify which Lutheran bodies were involved in the case, a personal pet peeve of mine, as well as whether the school had a formal code of conduct it requires students to follow and whether its teaching on the larger issue of homosexuality and sin was clear. What did the parents and students sign to join this voluntary association?

We've discussed before the many cases where religious freedom and gay rights are on a collision course. In almost all of those cases -- the Christian photographer in New Mexico who wished not to photograph a lesbian commitment ceremony, the Methodist camp that asked a lesbian couple not to use any of their worship facilities for their same-sex union ceremony, the psychiatrist who referred a gay couple to another doctor, the California doctors who referred a lesbian woman to a different doctor for in vitro fertilization -- gay rights have been winning. As this case progresses to the California Supreme Court, we'll watch and see what happens.

Please respect our Commenting Policy