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Court: University Cannot Silence Law Students’ Religious Views

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A federal court ordered the University of Idaho to rescind no-contact orders against a professor and three law students who expressed views on marriage as being between one man and one woman. On June 30—a ruling the Christian plaintiffs are likely to prevail—Chief U.S. District Judge David C. Nye of the District of Idaho issued a preliminary injunction blocking orders against the students and professor, who are members of the school’s chapter of the Christian Legal Society CLS).

The lawsuit followed an April 1, 2022, “moment of community” at the law school in response to an anti-LGBTQ+ slur left anonymously on a classroom whiteboard. The brief explains that at the event—in a showing of support for the LGBTQ+ community—plaintiffs Peter Perlot, Mark Miller, Ryan Alexander (students), and Richard Seamon, a professor, gathered in prayer.

Following the prayer, Jane Doe, a queer female law student at the school, approached the group, asking those present why the CLS constitution affirms that marriage is between one man and one woman. Plaintiff Miller explained that CLS honors the traditional biblical view of marriage and sexuality—including the concept that marriage is defined as being between one man and one woman.

Jane Doe shared that, in her opinion, the Bible does not support that determination. Miller elaborated the Bible makes that clarification in several places, noting that it condemns homosexuality as well as other sins. Plaintiff Seamon allegedly substantiated Miller’s explanation of CLS’s position on marriage. According to both sides, the parties then parted ways without further comment. Soon after the event, the lawsuit explains plaintiff Perlot left a handwritten note on Jane Doe’s carrel. The note read its entirety:

“I’m the president of CLS this semester. Feel free to come talk to me if you have anything you need to say or questions you want to ask. I’m usually in my carrel: 6-034. over by the windows. Peter [smiley face].”

According to the defendants in the case, Jane Doe interpreted the note as a “violating” her private carrel with “messaging she interpreted as one of the Plaintiff’s efforts to proselytize about extreme, hateful religious dogma that [she] emphatically rejects.”

Shortly after the initial “moment of community,” on April 4, 2022, an event took place to honor the law school’s accreditation by the American Bar Association. Plaintiffs Alexander and Perlot attended the event, claiming Jane Doe and others voiced concerns about CLS and its members. Specifically, that their religious beliefs were “bigoted and anti-LGBTQ+.” In response, Alexander defended CLS, stating “the biggest instance of discrimination he had seen on campus was actually against CLS and the administration’s failure to timely recognize and register it as a group.”

Then, that same day (April 4), apparently in response to plaintiff Seamon’s participation in the April 1 event, several students staged “walkouts” for two courses he taught. Also that day, defendant Lindsay Ewan, deputy director of the law school’s Office of Civil Rights and Investigations (OCRI), interviewed Miller about the April 1 event.

On April 7, in response to Jane Doe’s reports that she felt “targeted and unsafe,” the OCRI issued the no-contact orders to the plaintiff students. The OCRI also issued a limited no-contact order against Professor Seamon after he emailed Doe, a student in one of his classes, on April 3 to express his concern for her well-being after the “heated discussion” at the April 1 event.

Jane Doe thanked Seamon for “reaching out,” said she was still processing matters, and stated she would speak to him later in the week during his office hours. However, Jane Doe never met with Seamon and began attending his class online due to some personal health issues. Curious if a conversation would be beneficial, Seamon contacted Jane Doe again on April 26, 2022. On April 27, 2022, Jane Doe sent an email to Seamon, copying the law school’s dean and associate dean, in which she stated, in part:

“Your event caused me to fear for my life at the University of Idaho. I am scared to be on campus; I am scared to be in your class. I fear you. I fear the CLS. My life, my grades, my law school career are not safe with a professor that is actively working towards taking away my human rights.

The group you are the admin for, subjected me and others to violent verbal abuse, in which you took the lead on and agreed with. This has created unpreparable [sic] damage to your students and faculty at the school of law. If you continue to email me, I will file get [sic] a restraining order from the police.”

As the unfortunate circumstances unfolded, the plaintiffs decided to take legal action. Represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the plaintiffs asked the court to order university officials to rescind the unlawful no-contact orders against the plaintiffs that were issued because of the religious content and viewpoint of their speech. As previously noted, the court’s preliminary injunction ruling requires the university to rescind the no-contact orders and refrain from enforcing the policy that allowed university officials to impose the orders while the case, Perlot v. Green, continues. ADF Legal Counsel said of the court’s decision:

“Today’s university students will be tomorrow’s leaders, judges, and voters, so it’s imperative that university officials model the First Amendment freedoms they are supposed to be teaching their students. The University of Idaho must stop discriminating against students’ religious beliefs and allow students of all ideological perspectives to freely debate important issues of our day.”

Indeed, Judge Nye’s ruling stated the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that the “college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.'” Pointing out there is a clear distinction between disagreeable speech and harassing speech, the ruling stated the Defendants’ rush to issue no-contact orders “shows limited balance and little to no effort at ensuring their actions were the least restrictive means to accomplish their goal.” Judge Nye proclaimed:

“Some may disagree with Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs. Such is each person’s prerogative and right. But none should disagree that Plaintiffs have a right to express their religious beliefs without fear of retribution. The Constitution makes that clear.

Without the freedom “to inquire, to study and to evaluate,” the [Supreme] Court has warned that “our civilization will stagnate and die.”

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