When Georgetown University, a Catholic institution, denied a certain status to two groups of homosexual students, the groups sued, citing the District of Columbia's Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on "sexual orientation." The homosexuals' lawyer said that unless Georgetown were compelled to yield, "It would mean that a corporation--that's all Georgetown is, a business--could say, 'I'm religiously affiliated, thus I don't have to abide by your human rights act.'"

That assertion--that a university is just a business like any other--expresses a political agenda for breaking all private institutions to the saddle of government. It is an assault on pluralism, waged with the rhetoric of pluralism. It is an example of how the proliferation of "rights" threatens freedom.

The two groups were granted "student body endorsement" but denied "university recognition." The former, conferred by the student government, gives access to university facilities, student advertising, the comptroller's services, and the right to apply for lecture funds. "University recognition" involves approval by Georgetown's administration. It involves a few additional privileges, but is important because the university considers the recognition an "endorsement" of a group's activities.

Roman Catholic teaching is that no person affiliated with the church may be neutral about homosexual orientation or acts; an individual has a moral obligation to try to change his or her homosexual orientation; homosexual activities are morally wrong. Georgetown concluded, reasonably, that the homosexual groups' philosophy, goals and activities--promoting the doctrine that homosexuality is an equally moral alternative to heterosexuality--were contrary to church teaching, and "university recognition" would be construed as endorsement and would undermine church teaching.

The issue, said Georgetown, is its constitutionally protected right to the "free exercise" of religion. The D.C. Superior Court has now agreed.

The suit was part of the campaign to legitimize homosexuality--legitimize it in the sense of establishing public policy that seems to endorse the idea that homosexuality is a matter of moral indifference. The D.C. Human Rights Act is nothing if not comprehensive. It bans discrimination "including, but not limited to, discrimination by reason of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance"--I am not making this up--"sexual orientation, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation, physical handicap, source of income, and place of residence or business."

("Personal appearance" refers to "bodily condition" and manner or style of dress. But the D.C. government says there can be a "requirement of cleanliness." The American Civil Liberties Union probably sees in such a requirement the mailed fist of fascism.)

The homosexual groups employed the rhetoric of academic freedom: "If ideas cannot be freely discussed . . ." But it is absurd to say that homosexual "ideas" are suppressed by withholding the university's imprimatur from homosexual groups. Anyway, the groups sought to strip Georgetown of its freedom to define its educational mission. That mission is fundamentally incompatible with an idea the groups embody, the idea (in the words of Father Timothy Healy, Georgetown's president) "that human beings should be identified and their essential nature classified in terms of their sexual orientation."

Although it reflected current liberal values and used the familiar rhetoric of rights, this was a bullying suit. It was an attempt to use government power to compel an institution of learning to endorse a particular opinion.

The homosexual groups argued that by applying for federal grants, loans and contracts, Georgetown had, necessarily, presented itself as essentially secular, and so had forfeited the right to assert religious rights in this way. The fact that the groups were mistaken about what the law requires is less important than what their interpretation of the law says about their aim: they want the receipt of any government aid by a private institution to make that private institution thoroughly subordinate to public dictates.

If the groups had prevailed, their victory would have meant that all values, even those given "preferred" national status in the First Amendment (values such as the "free exercise" of religion), would be subordinate to whatever values are promoted by local agencies such as the D.C. Council.

Forty years ago liberals were pleased when, in a famous case, the Supreme Court held that West Virginia could not abridge the right to "free exercise" of religion by compelling children to salute the flag in a manner contrary to their religious beliefs. Today many liberals favor attempts such as that by the Georgetown groups to force that First Amendment value, and an academic institution, to yield to the commands of a city council. This change of attitude should bother liberals who are bothered by the fact that liberalism has lost its ascendancy in American politics.