The D.C. Court of Appeals yesterday heard arguments on whether Georgetown University must provide school facilities to gay student organizations despite the university's assertions that to do so would violate beliefs of the Catholic Church.
The case, which stems from a suit filed in 1980 against the university by a group of students, is a significant test of the 1977 D.C. Human Rights Act, a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual preference, which university officials contend is less important than their constitutional right to exercise religious beliefs.
Enforcement of the city statute "is forcing Georgetown to affirm a belief in the alternative gay life style that it does not hold," an attorney for Georgetown, Charles Wilson, told the three-judge appellate panel yesterday.
Richard A. Gross, an attorney for the students, disputed the university's claim to religious beliefs in student activities, saying university officials "made the policy up in response to my client's application."
Numerous gay rights organizations from across the country, as well as two other jurisdictions with similar antidiscrimination laws, have joined the students in the appeal, which many authorities believe eventually will be taken to the Supreme Court.
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has also delayed action on a proposed revenue bond for renovations at the university pending negotiations between the city, gay rights' advocates and university officials over the discrimination issue.
Last year a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that GU officials were justified in refusing to accept the gay groups as bona fide student organizations, saying there was no "national policy" compelling the university to recognize gay student groups.
The case hinges on the university's contention that to accept the groups would amount to "recognition" and "endorsement" of homosexual practices.
In 1979, a group called Gay People of Georgetown University applied for a charter as a "recognized student activity" to gain access to such university facilities as office space, printing machines, telephones and student mailing lists.
GU officials, including university President Timothy S. Healy, denied the request, as well as a subsequent petition from gay students at the university's law school, claiming protection for their decision on religious grounds under the First Amendment.
Attorneys for the students have questioned the university's right to invoke the First Amendment, claiming that student activities at Georgetown are "purely secular" and that Georgetown is partially funded by federal grants.
The students are not interested in an endorsement from the university, they said, but equal access to facilities along with other student groups.
But "the most important perception we're dealing with here is the university's perception of itself," Wilson told the court yesterday. "There is no question that Georgetown University has a history of acting in consonance with the moral teachings of the Catholic Church."
According to Wilson, the university does not judge the sexual practices of individual students in its admissions and financial aid policies. But it cannot "endorse" or "even be neutral about" groups that advocate homosexuality.
The panel, composed of Judges John M. Ferren, Julia Cooper Mack and John A. Terry, questioned GU's denial of facilities to the gay groups.
"It's not being asked to endorse the gay groups or anything of the kind," said Terry, "just give equal access. The university does not have to endorse the group in order to give it equal access to university facilities."