Gay Rights v. Religious Rights in “Safe Space” ruling at Georgia Tech

Inside Higher Ed, reporting from the front lines of the culture war:

A federal judge has ruled that the Georgia Institute of Technology had materials in its office to support gay students that amounted to unconstitutional support for some religious groups over others. [...]

The ruling came in a case involving a range of issues over speech codes and support for religious groups at Georgia Tech — issues that mirror those being raised at other public colleges and many of which were resolved in earlier rulings or agreements between the parties in the case. The new part of the ruling, however, focused on a set of materials used in the “Safe Space” program at Georgia Tech, a part of the institute’s diversity office designed to support gay and lesbian students.

The case was filed on behalf of two Georgia Tech students, assisted by the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal group that has sued many public colleges accusing them of violating the rights of religious students. The portion of the suit about Safe Space argued that materials at the public university were effectively religious in that they endorsed some faiths over others — and that these materials were as a result unconstitutional. Judge J. Owen Forrester agreed.

The materials in question dealt with issues that may be faced by religious gay students, or by gay students challenged about the sexuality by people from different faiths. One passage cited in the ruling says that “historically, Biblical passages taken out of context have been used to justify such things as slavery, the inferior status of women, and the persecution of religious minorities.” Such attitudes have led some religious groups to declare “that homosexuality is immoral,” the group’s materials state, while others “have begun to look at sexual relationships in terms of the love, mutual support, commitments and the responsibility of the partners rather than the sex of the individuals involved.”


In another section, the materials discuss specific faiths, noting which faiths recognize same-sex unions, and the conditions under which some faiths will ordain gay clergy. While the Episcopal Church is praised as “more receptive to gay worshipers than many other Christian denominations,” the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is described as having “the most anti-gay policies of any religion widely practiced in the United States.” The section on Roman Catholic belief also notes that some theologians have argued, “much to the embarrassment of the Vatican,” that the medieval church recognized unions for same-sex couples.

In his ruling, Judge Forrester noted that Safe Space is not just one among many student groups, but one with close ties — financial and staffing — to the university. In this context, he said, it is irrelevant that officials involved in the program stressed that the materials in question had no religious purpose, and were simply motivated by a desire to help students understand the views of different religious groups on questions of sexuality.

Because of the close ties to the university, Judge Forrester said, the issue is the “clear preference of one religion over another contained” in the Safe Space materials, which he said was clearly unconstitutional. The decision ordered Georgia Tech to remove the materials in question.

The Georgia Tech ruling is believed to be the first of its kind. Before we jump to the conclusion that the gay folks have hit their “agenda” button, consider this:

Brian Moulton, a lawyer for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, agreed that the Safe Space materials were problematic. He noted that nothing in the decision makes it impossible for a public college to offer programs for gay students, and that the only limitations concern discussion of religion.

The language used in the materials about religions “did very much sound like taking sides,” which is “very problematic with public funds.”

The Alliance Defense Fund was set up by James Dobson and 30 other Christian to protect marriage, expose the “homosexual agenda,” and fight “war on Christmas.” For more on their activities, here’s WikipediaMedia Matters, and People For the American Way.

My most recent beef with them was over their misinformation filled opposition to the Day of Silence last month.

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  • runasim

    This is hoe we lose our way.
    Laws are used and misused in such a way as to abort any attempts to protect higher principles like, say, tolerance.

  • CStanley

    Brian Moulton, a lawyer for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, agreed that the Safe Space materials were problematic. He noted that nothing in the decision makes it impossible for a public college to offer programs for gay students, and that the only limitations concern discussion of religion.

    The language used in the materials about religions “did very much sound like taking sides,” which is “very problematic with public funds.”

    Is that your opinion too then, Joe? Because that sound exactly right to me- nothing at all wrong with the university setting up an organization to protect gay students, but the religious commentary showing a preference for different faith groups' perspectives on the morality is out of line from a state supported institution.

  • JWindish

    Yes, it is my opinion, too. I guess I should have made that clear. I absolutely believe we must be careful not to cross those lines. I think it was good that the Georgia Institute of Technology pulled the materials, though I know nothing more about the case beyond what was written in this one story.

  • Slamfu

    Its part of the christian rights' persecution complex to feel set upon when others are allowed freedom to act as they will. Most people consider themselves being forced to act in accordance with someone else's religon as persecution, but for many on the right merely having to coexist with other practices is the same thing.

  • CStanley

    Actually, Slamfu, in this particular case the statement you are making applies more toward any gay activists groups who would appeal this ruling. If they felt that those materials should have been permitted from a state sponsored institution, they'd be looking for the kind of protection from coexistence with other practices or beliefs that you claim that the Christian right seeks (I'm not commenting here one way or another on whether they do that- I'd have to look at a case by case example.)