FSU to pay $95K after Catholic student leader fired over religious beliefs on Black Lives Matter

Florida State University student Jack Denton smiles while on campus in Tallahassee, Florida.
Florida State University student Jack Denton smiles while on campus in Tallahassee, Florida. | YouTube/Alliance Defending Freedom

Florida State University settled a lawsuit in federal court and issued a statement affirming its commitment to protecting students’ First Amendment rights after refusing to defend Student Senate President Jack Denton, a Catholic fired for expressing his religious beliefs last year. 

In a settlement agreement reached last week, FSU agreed to issue a statement regarding its commitment to protecting students' First Amendment rights on campus, specifically in student government. 

FSU will restore $1,050 in Denton’s lost wages, pay $10,000 in damages to him and cover nearly $84,000 in attorneys’ fees. 

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The Student Supreme Court also reinstated Denton to his position as the student senate president last year.

“Florida State University remains committed to protecting the rights of its students to hold and practice their religious beliefs free of persecution,” the statement released on Wednesday by FSU’s Office of Communications reads. 

“Every student, no matter their religion, has the right to participate in student organizations and hold positions in student government,” the university continued. 

Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Logan Spena said ADF, which represented the student, is “pleased” FSU “finally affirmed its commitment to students’ First Amendment rights on campus.”

“Public universities can’t single out and punish students for their religious beliefs,” Spena said.  “… All students should be able to peacefully share their personal convictions without fear of retaliation.”

Denton's troubles began in a private message conversation among Catholic students last June. He expressed that the organizations, Reclaim the Block and the American Civil Liberties Union advocated “for things that are explicitly anti-Catholic” when a member of the group chat asked them to support the organizations financially. 

“I think [what they advocate for] is contrary to the Church’s teaching on the common good,” Denton said in one of the archived private messages. 

“... It is important to know what you’re supporting when you’re Catholic,” Denton said in a later message.  “If I stay silent while my brothers and sisters may be supporting an organization that promotes grave evils, I have sinned through my silence. I love you all, and I want us to all be aware of the truth.”

Although Black Lives Matter advocates for racial justice, the political organization also supports a range of liberal and progressive political causes, such as LGBT activism. The ACLU has also engaged in LGBT and pro-abortion activism.

Denton argued that support for transgenderism, abortion and defunding of police departments contradicted Church teachings. 

Another student took screenshots of Denton’s text messages to share on social media, where the post went viral among students.

Outrage over Denton's messages led organizations and students across campus to call for his removal. Ultimately, the student senate voted to remove him from his paid leadership role as the student government association’s student senate president.

An online petition calling for his removal circulated and received thousands of signatures. Denton also had to sit through a seven-hour Zoom meeting, where students slandered him for espousing his religious beliefs and called them “violent,” “wrong” and “evil.” 

Since FSU is a public institution, Denton was considered a government employee in this role. 

Attorney Tyson Langhofer, a senior counsel and director of the Center for Academic Freedom at the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that firing Denton for his religious beliefs is a “blatant violation of the First Amendment."

“Today’s college students are our future legislators, judges, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they’re supposed to be teaching students,” Langhofer said in a statement.

“Student governments should be encouraging and respecting robust debate and ideas, not silencing and punishing students for expressing their beliefs,” Langhofer continued. “We are encouraged that the university has finally reached the right conclusion.”

Attorneys from ADF, a religious liberty and free speech legal organization, filed a lawsuit in federal court against FSU and student senate members after university officials failed to defend Denton’s constitutional freedoms. Administrators allowed the student senate to remove him over backlash to his private text conversation.  

In a video produced by ADF regarding his case, Denton said he wants others students to know they can stand up for themselves. 

“You do have recourse and people to help you,” Denton said. “Stand up for what you believe in and don’t be cowed by the ‘cancel culture.’ It’s sustained by fear. We can end it if we are willing to stand up for what we believe in.”

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