Gay university student sues U.S. Department of Education

Declan A. Galli, an LGBT university student, has filed suit against the U.S. Department of Education challenging its new rule, created during the last days of the Trump administration, that requires public colleges and universities to fund religious student groups that allegedly discriminate against LGBT students and others.

The 26-page lawsuit was filed Jan. 19 in federal court for the U.S. District of Columbia. It’s been assigned to Judge Amy Berman Jackson and seeks a judicial order to set aside the new rule. Galli, of San Luis Obispo, is a sophomore at California Polytechnic State University. 

The new rule requires public colleges and universities to exempt religious student organizations from antibias policies that protect a wide variety of categories, including LGBT status. 

“Should any public colleges and universities remain committed to preserving a positive educational environment for all their students by retaining and applying their nondiscrimination policies uniformly across campus, they must defy the Department of Education’s mandates and as a result forgo federal funding,” the lawsuit says. “They would then lose access to critical resources, at a time when university budgets have already been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The lawsuit argues that former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had no authority to issue the rule, ignored the harms the rule will cause to students and their colleges and universities, and imposed requirements that directly conflict with the U.S. Constitution as well as statutory nondiscrimination laws. 

American Atheists and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are suing on behalf of Galli and the Secular Student Alliance, a national nonreligious student organization.

“I fear for my safety and the safety and mental health of my fellow students,” said Galli, 19. “If colleges now have to promote student organizations that discriminate, it’s hard to believe the campus can keep us safe.”

Richard B. Katskee, Americans United’s vice president and legal director, expressed hope the Biden administration will rescind the rule. “We hope that the Biden administration will act quickly to rescind this rule,” Katskee said, in an email. “But because the rule went through the notice-and-comment rulemaking process, withdrawing it would require that same time-consuming process. In the meantime, we’re asking the court to act, to ensure that universities are allowed to promote open, inclusive campuses, and their students won’t be forced to fund discrimination.”

Justin F. Robinette, a local civil-rights attorney, expressed agreement with plaintiffs’ position. “In response to this lawsuit, I just hope the Biden administration will put forth a more equitable rule,” Robinette told PGN. “Joe Biden should get the ball rolling on reversing this particular damage done in the Trump era. He can base a new rule on existing case law which states that colleges can exclude a student organization that refuses to abide by the school’s non-discrimination policy. It wouldn’t violate the First Amendment to do that.”

A spokesperson for the Biden administration didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment.

Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, decried the rule. “It’s more than abhorrent to even think that colleges would be forced to choose between protecting students or losing federal funding,” Lassiter said, in an email. “Discrimination in our public institutions is unlawful. As a former professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has worked with student religious groups, there is no exemption for these groups either. Discrimination and racist actions that are disguised in the name of religion jeopardizes religious freedoms for all students. The Trump Administration created this unlawful rule to appease their White Christian Nationalist base. And they should be ashamed for doing so. There are civil-rights protections that cannot be ignored as it relates to discrimination. We must fight back against the weaponizing of religious freedom that hides under the veil of discriminatory policies and practices.”

Preston Heldibridle, state policy associate for Pennsylvania Youth Congress, said discrimination shouldn’t be subsidized. “Religious student groups are a vital component of a rich and diverse learning community, and should receive full protection under the law,” Heldibridle said, in an email. “However, all student groups must be held to equal standards. Whether religious or secular, no club or organization should receive the special privilege to deny membership or leadership opportunities to certain groups of their peers — certainly not while using funds from the tuition fees of the student body.” 

Adrian Shanker, executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, blasted DeVos. “Former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos never missed an opportunity to harm LGBTQ youth, and her insidious last-ditch rule only serves to fuel anti-LGBTQ sentiment on college campuses,” Shanker said, in an email. “Kudos to the organizations suing to stop this rule. College students across Pennsylvania deserve to learn and grow in environments where they are accepted and supported.”