A pending civil rights lawsuit in California carries national implications about whether religious schools have rights and protections that exceed those of other private schools. The case against a small Lutheran high school that expelled two students for alleged "lesbian behavior" also has highlighted the decision by some Christian schools to quell unchristian behavior—such as homosexuality—by removing the offending students.

The school's attorney, John McKay, said the girls exhibited "lesbian behavior" in photos and written messages on MySpace.com. After interviewing them, principal Greg Bork determined "they were in love with each other," McKay said.

Christopher Hayes, the students' attorney, is asking the courts to award unspecified damages and to reinstate the girls. He told CT they were "mugging for the camera" and that no inappropriate conduct was seen or reported. "Whether they were in a relationship is irrelevant," he said.

Officials at California Lutheran High School (CLHS), a Riverside County school of about 140, determined the girls' relationship violated the school's code of conduct, which does not explicitly mention homosexuality. The school is run by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which considers homosexuality a sin. McKay told CT the girls received the same punishment that would be given to a heterosexual couple having premarital sex.

"It's a religious institution, and it was concluded that anybody engaged in non-Christian conduct would be expelled," McKay said. "By keeping them there, they would have condoned the conduct the girls were engaged in, and it would have been a bad influence on the other students."

The CLHS case is not unique, especially as teens face sexual pressures at younger ages. But some schools draw the line differently. Within weeks of the CLHS controversy last fall, Ontario Christian School—less than an hour's drive away—expelled a student because her mother is gay.

Religious schools often argue that their First Amendment rights to freely practice their faith and freely associate allow them to admit students who share their beliefs and keep out those who don't. The California Supreme Court affirmed on July 6 a lower-court ruling that the teens may sue, even though the school is private. A decision in favor of the girls would shake what is commonly perceived as legal bedrock.

In the meantime, schools walk a fine line between overly concerning themselves with how students live and condoning unbiblical behavior, said Finn Laursen, director of Christian Educators Association International. In general, Laursen said teachers and administrators shouldn't get involved unless behavior is disrupting the learning opportunities of others.

"Schools have a big enough issue dealing with academic issues," he said. "They shouldn't be acting as our sex police."

At the same time, Michael Anthony, professor of education at Biola University, said schools also must do what is best for the student body. If students won't believe or accept that their behavior is inappropriate, Anthony said, "then the school's hands have been tied to say we can't take the role of being redemptive."

Related Elsewhere:

The Associated Press reported on the story.

Suspected Lesbian Students Sue Christian School For Expulsion | Two 16-year-olds who were expelled from a Lutheran high school because they were suspected of being lesbians have sued the school for invasion of privacy and discrimination. (Associated Press, December 29, 2005)

More information about California Lutheran High School is available from their website.

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