Calif. Court: Christian School Can Expel Students Over Lesbian Behavior

A California appeals court ruled this week that a private Christian school has the right to expel two students over an alleged lesbian relationship that was in violation of the organization's "Christian Conduct" rule.

In a 3-0 ruling, the Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld California Lutheran High School's right, as a private, religious organization, to use religious criteria in making admission and discipline decisions. 

The school is not a business enterprise, the appeals court ruled on Monday, and therefore not covered in the state's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

"The school's religious message is inextricably intertwined with its secular functions," wrote Justice Betty A. Richli in the appeals court opinion. "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."

The appeals court ruling relied on a 1998 California Supreme Court decision that allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude gays and atheists. The Boy Scouts of America, which had faced similar discrimination charges, did not have to comply with the state's anti-discrimination law because it was a social organization, the state High Court had ruled.

The Riverside County-based school had expelled the two girls, then 16, for having a "bond of intimacy" that was "characteristic of a lesbian relationship."

In 2005, a student had reported to a teacher that the girls said they were in love with each other and referred the teacher to the girls' MySpace pages. One girl indicated she was bisexual on her MySpace page, while the other said she was "not sure" of her sexual orientation. The school's pastor said that when he confronted the girls over the suspected lesbian behavior, the girls admitted they had hugged and kissed each other and told other students they were lesbians.

The school's pastor suspended the two girls but the directors of the school later expelled them.

The two students, who were only identified in court documents as Jane Doe and Jane Roe, sued the school for violating state anti-discrimination laws.

Court documents show that the school has a policy of refusing admission to homosexual students and its "Christian Conduct" rule provided that a student could be expelled for engaging in immoral or scandalous conduct, whether on or off campus, including homosexuality.

The girls were expelled for "conducting themselves in a manner consistent with being lesbians," said John McKay, attorney for California Lutheran, according to the Los Angeles Times. He noted that the girls never disclosed their sexual orientation during the litigation.

McKay said the school's mission statement is to educate students based on Christian principles.

The Association for Faith-Based Organizations (AFBO), a coalition of over 830 California Christian schools, had sought to intervene in the case to protect its member schools' First Amendment right to make admissions decisions and disciplinary decisions consistent with their religious beliefs.

Members of AFBO include California private religious schools, such as Biola University, The Master's College, Point Loma Nazarene University, and Simpson University, that have religious admissions criteria substantially similar to Cal Lutheran and require their students to abide by rules prohibiting all forms of extramarital sexual conduct.

Attorneys with Christian Legal Society's Center for Law & Religious Freedom and the Alliance Defense Fund had filed a motion to intervene on behalf of AFBO. The court denied the request since it decided in favor of the school.

"Christian schools should be able to make admission and discipline decisions consistent with their religious beliefs.  The Court of Appeal's decision preserves that right for Christian schools in California," said CLS litigation counsel Timothy J. Tracey. 

"The court understood that this right would be violated if Christian schools were subjected to liability under California anti-discrimination laws for expelling students who engage in homosexual conduct."

The Cal Lutheran case is not unique. Four years ago, a 14-year-old girl was expelled from a Ontario Christian school in California because her parents were lesbians. The school's admission policy states that at least one parent cannot engage in immoral practices such as cohabiting or engaging in a homosexual relationship.