Georgetown University says it is a First Amendment question -- the freedom of religion -- that enables it to ban gay rights groups as official campus organizations because homosexuality violates the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Two gay rights groups at the university, however, contend that the prestigious Jesuit institution has used freedom of religion to suppress their civil rights. About 70 undergraduates and law students claim that by denying them the right to form official campus gay students' organizations, the university is violating the city's human rights laws.
The dispute arose when Georgetown officials denied the two student groups -- one representing about 50 undergraduates and the other about 20 law students -- several thousand dollars in student activity funds and access to campus meeting halls.
To give them the money and use of campus facilities would be "inappropriate for a Catholic university," Georgetown officials argued. In a letter to the students, Dean william Schueman wrote: "Official subsidy and support of a gay student organization would be interpreted by many as endorsement of the position taken by the gay movement on a full range of issues."
So the gay students have asked a D.C. Superior Court judge to rule that Georgetown's withholding of funds and official recognition violates the city's antidiscrimination law.
At a preliminary court hearing yesterday, Judge Leonard Braman asked Georgetown's lawyers if the university actually is attacking the constitutionality of the city's 1977 law prohibiting discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex . . . (and) sexual orientation."
To the extent that it would compel the university to provide them funding, we do," said Charles Wilson, one attorney representing Georgetown.
This is not the first time controversial student activities and ideas have run afoul of the Georgetown administration. In 1975, university officials were annoyed by complaints that the college radio station, WGTB-FM, had offered information about birth control and abortion, as well as programs for gays.
According to university officials,Georgetown distributes about $200,000 to an estimated 90 student organizations and the groups must meet certain criteria to recieve the money and recognition.
Those criteria include having at least 12 members, a written constitution and serving some educational, social, or cultural purpose. The activity must "promote the growth of the individual as a positive force within the university community."
"i anticipated that we would be studying sexual orientation discrimination case law; instead we are living it," said Clint Hockenberry, president of the Gay Rights Coalition of the Georgetown University Law Center.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of about 30 undergraduate and law students, as well as three law professors. Most -- but not all -- of the students are homosexual, according to the lawsuit. The students state that as a result of the university's action they have been denied office space, supplies, photocopying equipment and telephones, equipement that is provided to recognized student organizations.
In seperate court papers, more than a dozen law professors supported the students' suit saying that the university's action "will chill the free exchange of ideas and freedom of inquiry essential to the kind of academic environment in which they wish to work."
After the court hearing, attorney Ronald E. Bogard, who represents the two gay rights groups, said that because Georgetown receives federal funds, they could not be seen as a private, religious university.
How can they be religious for purposes of defending a civil rights suit, but secular for receiving federal money?" he asked. "They can't have it both ways."
University spokesman Wes Christenson said the university would not comment on the suit, but would argue it in court."