Catholic University Open To Lawsuit Under New D.C. Non-Discrimination Law

by Robert Shine

The District of Columbia’s new law barring LGBT discrimination by religiously affiliated schools went into effect this week, opening the door for Catholic University of America students to challenge that school’s decade-long denial of an LGBT student group.

D.C. City Council passed the Human Rights Amendment Act last year, which, in part, repealed an existing law commonly known as the “Armstrong Amendment.”

For decades, this amendment has exempted religious schools from the District’s extensive non-discrimination laws regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.

It has been the legal grounds on which President John Garvey repeatedly denied recognition of CUAllies, an LGBT student group at Catholic University. Now these grounds no longer exist. Even a congressional move to repeal the new DC Human Rights Amendment Act failed recently.

CUAllies’ leadership is weighing options, according to MetroWeekly:

Following Congress’s decision, Natasha Backman, a graduating senior at Catholic and the head of CUAllies, expressed hope that the prohibition on discrimination would encourage university administrators to work more collaboratively to reach an understanding with CUAllies as to its official status and ability to access university resources.

Backman isn’t naive — she pointed out that university administrators at Catholic have relished being confrontational and are quick to react to any perceived slight or action that they feel defies Church teaching — and nor has she taken any options off the table when it comes to legal action.

CUAllies member Steve Morris, a sophomore who also heads the College Republicans on campus, commented:

We have seen the school’s lack of logical and moral case catch up with their lack of legal case for denying CUAllies recognition…The only people who have anything to fear from debate are those who can’t stand strong in their beliefs.

The University, however, is holding firm.

The administration’s spokesperson, Victor Nakas, said CUA is ready for a court battle and would “expect to prevail” under First Amendment protections. President Garvey, in a Washington Post opinion piece co-authored with Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl, echoed this promised legal challenge.

The Human Rights Amendment was passed alongside the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, which prevents religious employers from discriminating based upon an employee’s reproductive decisions. Implementation of both laws was delayed given the U.S. Congress’ 30-day review, during which Republicans introduced disapproval resolutions against both laws that would have nullified them.

House leadership did not vote on the Human Rights Amendment and a similar resolution introduced by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) went nowhere in that the chamber, reports The Washington Blade.

Catholic bishops wrote letters supporting nullification efforts, grounding their arguments in an apparent attack on religious liberty that these laws perpetuate.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton suggested that Republicans may attack the new non-discrimination laws during this summer’s appropriations process, as they have previously done when disagreeing with D.C. City Council legislation.

President Garvey and fellow administrators should pause in this moment, considering their students’ needs as the foremost priority rather than pursuing further congressional intervention or legal challenges. Sacrificing students’ well-being for partisan campaigning is what really undermines the school’s Catholic identity, not the fostering of a welcoming and inclusive campus environment.

As a former CUAllies leader, I have firsthand experience about how hostile the campus can be for LGBTQ students and how few pastoral resources exist.

D.C.’s new law is a perfect moment to reset relations with CUAllies and set a new course at Catholic University.

In the absence of such outreach, however, the 1980’s lawsuit forcing Georgetown University to care for LGBT students should be instructive for CUAllies leadership. This time, there is no religious exemption behind which Catholic University can hide as it shirks its Gospel commitments.

Photo via flickr user NCinDC