Pepperdine within legal rights to deny anti-homophobia club official status

Other universities have dealt with such situations by abandoning the formal acceptance process of student organizations altogether.

By Andi Peterson/Special to The Malibu Times

Although several gay and lesbian advocacy groups were alarmed by Pepperdine University’s recent decision to reject a application for an anti-homophobia club for official recognition as a student organization, the university’s decision is constitutionally legal, say experts.

“While Pepperdine has the legal right to deny formal acceptance [to this group], it sounds to me that they are not welcoming to LGBT [lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender] kids,” said Dr. Roni Sandlow, director of the LGBT Center at UCLA. “[Pepperdine] can ‘pretty it up’ any way they like, but it sounds anti-gay to me. That’s discrimination.”

As a private institution, Pepperdine functions under guidelines that differ from those governing public universities. Since it receives its funding not from the state, but from student tuition and private donations, school activity and policy cannot legally be decided by the state. In instances such as this one, the university is exempt from the 14th Amendment, also known as the Equal Protection Clause. Additionally, according to the First Amendment, the university as a private organization has the right to freedom of association. In other words, among other freedoms granted by this amendment, Pepperdine can choose what groups it wants to formally recognize and associate with.

Sandlow said UCLA would not be allowed to decline a group in the same manner that Pepperdine did because UCLA is a public university receiving state funding. Spokespeople for Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and Mount Saint Mary’s University, both of which are private religious universities, declined to comment on the issue.

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Students Against Homophobia, the Pepperdine group that was denied recognition, was founded in 2003 by sophomore Grant Turck. The purpose of SAH is to educate the Pepperdine community about homophobia, the fear of people who identify themselves as homosexual.

Despite the apparent legal protection Pepperdine has, some still say the university’s denial to officially recognize the club is not right.

“The point is that these people [at Pepperdine] need an outlet. They have a right to it, and it is being denied,” said Matthew Timoteo, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA, at LMU.

Timoteo said a similar situation occurred at LMU in the 1990s when GSA was denied acceptance as a university-recognized organization. LMU eventually resolved the issue after it was sued by abandoning its formal acceptance process of student organizations altogether. Under the new system, GSA was not recognized, but it was also no longer singled out. Whether Pepperdine will follow the same path is unclear.

“SAH is an organization that seeks to bring people of all backgrounds and viewpoints together to form a common bond of tolerance, respect and justice for people of all sexual orientations,” Turck said last week. According to the application submitted on Jan. 30, seven students officially requested to be a part of the organization. Turck said Tuesday that he has a list of 20 people who have expressed support for SAH.

Pepperdine released a statement that the university reserves the right to determine whether a student organization is consistent with the university mission. The university further stated that SAH is not supportive of the university’s traditional Christian teachings regarding homophobia. It added there are better venues than a student organization for addressing shared concerns regarding homophobia.

This situation is similar to that of a 2003 lawsuit involving the Augusta National Golf Club and its status as a men’s only club. In 2002, Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, brought charges of gender discrimination against the club for its men’s only policy. Augusta National won the lawsuit and its policies were upheld because the club is a private organization and has the ability to self-regulate its policies and operations. Pepperdine, as a private organization, has essentially the same status legally as Augusta National.

As a result of Pepperdine’s decision, SAH cannot hold any meetings on campus and is not allowed to advertise in any way on university property. However, Turck said he is planning a non-violent grassroots campaign in which T-shirts worn by those who participate will have the name of the club and an e-mail address on the back of the shirts. He said that on a chosen day in March, the shirts will be worn on campus.

Turck is also currently trying to get nonprofit organization status with the federal government in order for his group to function outside of the Pepperdine community, and has contacted lamdalegal, a nonprofit gay rights organization that takes on legal issues regarding gay rights and discrimination.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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