The Importance of Clarity in Religious School Codes of Conduct
In 2015, a student at an all-boys Catholic High School in Tennessee made headlines after he was sent home in response to his request to bring a male date to the school’s homecoming dance. Now, that student is suing the school for discrimination, breach of contract, and a whole host of other tort claims (Sanderson v. Catholic Brothers High School). Though the case is still in its infancy, it offers lessons to religious schools who want to avoid a similar fate.
In 2015, an incoming high school senior at Catholic Brothers High School in Tennessee approached the school Principal about bringing another boy as a date to the school’s homecoming dance in the fall. The student had previously raised the subject during his junior year with a teacher and the assistant principal, who were both apparently supportive but had informed him that they did not have the authority to grant his request. In his request to the Principal, the student referenced an article about how a Jesuit Priest at another school had permitted same-sex couples at that school’s prom. In response, the Principal apparently expressed his discomfort with such an arrangement at CBHS, but did not make a final decision at that point. The student tweeted out the Principal’s response. The media storm began brewing. When the school finally came to a conclusion about the student’s request, it announced the decision by issuing a series of announcements over the loudspeaker before classes each day, stating that no CBHS student could bring a boy from another school to the dance. The student was absent from school on the first day of the announcement, but once he heard about the decision, he publicized it on social media. Press about the issue increased. The student chose to skip the dance. When he returned to school the following Monday, he was instructed to go to the assistant principal’s office. Because of the negative press that the school had been receiving over the incident, administration apparently thought it best that the student go home for a cooling-off period. Once the student finally returned to school, he reported feeling harassed and being treated differently by students, and even some teachers. Ultimately, he and his parents worked out with the school that the student would finish out his senior year at home, completing online coursework. According to the student’s legal complaint, he was not allowed back on campus and could not participate in any school events without the express consent of the school. For example, he was apparently not allowed to attend graduation and had his diploma mailed to him.
Student Files Suit Against Catholic High School
Based on these allegations, the student filed suit, claiming that the school breached its contract with him and his parents, that it inflicted emotional distress, that it was negligent in keeping the Principal and Board President because of their views about homosexuality, and that it violated Title IX, a federal law that requires schools that receive federal funding to treat the sexes equally in programming. The student’s complaint cites the school’s code of conduct, which states: “All CBHS students should feel safe, secure and accepted regardless of color, race, background, popularity, athletic ability, intelligence, personality, sexual orientation, religion or nationality.” The student in this case is seeking $1 million in damages. The case has just been filed, so many things could still come out as litigation progresses. But this case should serve as an important reminder to religious schools about the legal ramifications of student/parent interactions, handbooks and policies, and decision-making where sexual orientation is involved.
Beware the Danger of Thinking You Can Have it Both Ways
The school in this case had a specific policy that students should feel accepted regardless of their sexual orientation. But when there was an issue, it appeared as if the school wanted to backpedal on that policy in favor of a different position. Religious organizations, including schools, enjoy unique treatment in the law. But they cannot take advantage of this treatment while acting like any other secular institution. Religious schools cannot relax religious standards in some situations and then expect to be able to invoke them in others. If a school wants to be treated as a “religious” school, with all the benefits that the law provides under such a designation, it must craft its policies and documents carefully and consistently apply them in practice. If there are certain situations where a student will not be permitted to follow secular standards, that should be clear.
Ensure Staff Understands and Agrees to Policies
In this case, several staff members apparently expressed support for the student’s desire to bring a boy as a date to the homecoming dance. Yet administration was not comfortable with such a course of action, presumably on religious grounds. Clearly, there was some disconnect between what administration deemed proper student conduct and what staff had been communicating “on the ground.” If staff is expected to conform to and support the school’s official position, it and any corresponding expectations for staff must be made clear in advance. Staff should be unified around these issues.
Carefully Consider the Implications of Title IX
One of the main issues in this case is likely to be the student’s claim under Title IX. Title IX is a federal law that mandates equal treatment of the sexes in education. While Title IX can apply to a private school that receives federal funding, a religious school can also get exemptions from its provisions. But only if it so requests. And the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is posting all those requests on its website in an attempt to shame religious schools into complying, particularly in this area. Religious schools should consult legal counsel familiar with this area of law to advise on the pros and cons of achieving policy goals and staying on the right side of the law. This area of the law—and the court of public opinion—continues to develop and should be closely monitored.
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