Religious liberty groups are mobilizing to defend the chaplain of George Washington University's Newman Center after gay students launched an effort to have the priest fired because he preaches against homosexuality and abortion.
"It's discrimination against Catholics," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. "Secular colleges are fast becoming a very unsafe place for Catholics who hold true to their faith. This is a very, very sad situation."
Two gay students at George Washington told the GW Hatchet student newspaper that they want Father Greg Shaffer removed from campus over his anti-gay and anti-abortion views.
Damian Legacy and Blake Bergen said they want the university's Office for Diversity and Inclusion to investigate the priest and they are calling for the student government association to defund the Newman Center.
They were particularly offended by a blog post the priest wrote calling gay relationships "unnatural and immoral," the newspaper reported.
"To have my faith leader view me that way, just because of one piece of the way that God made me, and to think that one part is responsible for the destruction of my human dignity, it just didn't, I can't even begin to describe the mental conflict that it creates," Legacy told the newspaper.
The two students also cited academic studies that linked the inability to sleep and loss of appetite with being around homophobic behavior.
A GWU spokesperson disputed reports that an investigation had already been launched. They said they have yet to receive any complaint.
The university released a statement noting that it "strives to embody the spirit of mutual respect and reasoned debate that is essential to our academic mission."
They declined to answer specific questions about the controversy or the status of Father Shaffer only to say that he is not an employee of the university.
"We are therefore committed to ensuring that all members of our community are free to express their religious beliefs while honoring the right of others to express theirs," the statement read.
Reilly told Fox News that he found the incident "absolutely disturbing."
"Chastity outside of marriage has been the Catholic church teaching for more than 2,000 years," he said. "The only discrimination occurring there is trying to silence a priest for trying to teach the Catholic faith."
Peter Sprigg, of the Family Research Council told Fox News that while the incident is extremely shocking, it should come as no surprise.
"This is a shot across the bow to anyone who would dare speak out and dare to express a biblical view on homosexuality," Sprigg said. "This is an indication of what we at the Family Research Center have been warning – regarding the threat to religious liberty that is posed by the homosexual movement."
Sprigg said the goal of gay activists is to "intimidate people into silence."
"The world they seek to create is one in which no one ever says anything wrong about people engaging in homosexual conduct," he said. "The attitude of some of these homosexual activists seems to be that religious liberty has to be thrown out the window for the sake of preventing any kind of situation that might make homosexuals feel uncomfortable."
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, is urging GWU's president to take swift action to protect religious liberty at the school.
"It is an attack on the freedom of expression of Catholics on campus to discuss their religious beliefs and practices with impunity," Donohue wrote. "In short, this is a civil liberties issue involving both freedom of religion and freedom of speech."
Reilly said he never thought he'd see the day that Catholic priests would come under such assault.
"Catholic priests have an obligation to teach the Catholic faith," he said. "Those who go to a Catholic center ought to expect them to do that."
But now, he said, "Simply holding to the moral teachings of the faith are considered to be discrimination."
Online reaction to the incident has mostly generated sympathy for Father Shaffer.
Michael Sheehy, a 1997 GWU graduate, suggested if the gay students felt uncomfortable with the Newman Center's teachings – perhaps they should go somewhere else.
"No student is forced to attend Catholic Mass and religious programs at the Newman Center, nor condemned for doing so," Sheehy told Fox News. "The students in this article are certainly free to avoid this campus center, but also have no right to dictate how other students can or should practice their faith."
This is "diversity gone too far, and disrespectful to freedom of thought, conscience and practice of established religious doctrine," he added.