Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 30, 2020 / 01:00 pm (CNA).-
A federal court heard arguments on Tuesday in the case of Jack Denton, the Catholic student ousted from Florida State University’s student senate in June.
Denton, the former head of the student senate, sued university and student officials Aug. 31, alleging that his religious freedom was violated when he was removed from his position for remarks he made in a private chat forum of Catholic students.
On Tuesday, at the Northern District of Florida federal court, lawyers for Denton and for university administrators and student representatives presented their arguments.
“Jack cannot be deprived of an educational benefit, the right to participate in the student senate on the same grounds as everybody else, simply because his beliefs are not popular on campus,” his attorney Tyson Langhofer, with the group Alliance Defending Freedom, told CNA after the hearing.
“No student should ever feel forced to silence their deepest convictions” in order to keep a student government position, he said. “He [Jack] may not have popular beliefs. That doesn’t mean he can be excluded from participation and they can impose a religious test on him.”
Denton, a rising senior at the university, was removed from his position as head of the university’s student senate in early June over remarks he made in a GroupMe chat forum of the school’s Catholic student union in late May.
As students discussed racial justice and financially supporting various organizations, Denton outlined concerns with policy positions of the groups ACLU, BlackLivesMatter.com, and Reclaim the Block which he said conflicted with Church teaching.
Denton said that “BlackLivesMatter.com fosters ‘a queer-affirming network’ and defends transgenderism,” while the ACLU “defends laws protecting abortion facilities and sued states that restrict access to abortion.” The Black Lives Matter Global Network in September removed a page from its website which had previously promoted the positions Denton challenged in May.
The group Reclaim the Block, Denton said, “claims less police will make our communities safer and advocates for cutting PD’s budgets.” The claim “is a little less explicit,” he said, “but I think it’s contrary to the Church’s teaching on the common good.”
Later, in an interview with CNA, Denton said that he intervened in the GroupMe chat because he felt a “responsibility to point out this discrepancy, to make sure that my fellow Catholics knew what they were partaking in.”
One of the students in the forum took a screenshot of Denton’s comments and sent them to a member of the student senate. A student senate motion of no-confidence in Denton failed on June 3, but on June 5 the senate held another vote and removed Denton from office.
Langhofer told CNA on Tuesday that Denton’s removal was unlawful; the FSU student senate is a state actor by virtue of both its incorporation at a public university and its creation by a state statute. Denton could not be removed from this position simply for taking an unpopular policy stance, he said.
“There is very, very strong law with a lot of precedent saying very clearly that students don’t forfeit their religious freedom when they step on to a public university campus,” he said.
The defendants in the case—FSU president John Thrasher and two other officials, as well as the president and president pro tempore of the student senate—“don’t dispute that Jack was removed unconstitutionally because of his religious beliefs,” Langhofer told CNA. They did, however, dispute that they were personally liable in Jack’s case, he said.
Denton is pushing for a preliminary injunction on his removal, which the judge did not indicate when he would rule on it, Langhofer said.
In the seven-hour hearing which resulted in Denton’s removal, he showed “incredible courage and incredible resilience,” Langhofer said.
“Jack listened to every one of those students saying bad things about him simply because of his religious beliefs, and when he was given the opportunity to respond, what he said was, he said that every one of you are created in the image of God and you are loved, and you’re valued more than the entire universe,” Langhofer recounted.