Student to sue Seton Hall for refusal to recognize gay group

BY admin

March 10 2004 1:00 AM ET

As a youth in upstate New York, Anthony Romeo said he dared not disclose that he was gay. He said he chose to attend Seton Hall University in New Jersey because he believed its antibias policy would allow him to found a gay and lesbian student group. Romeo organized such a group, but his efforts to obtain full recognition from the Roman Catholic university have been rejected, leading him to prepare a lawsuit.

In December the school said the group could sponsor educational events but not religious services or social activities. Romeo said that was unfair. "Rosa Parks never sat in the middle of the bus," he said Tuesday, in a nod to the civil rights figure. "It's not the same treatment that any other group gets. I think it's really crucial that students are able to come to terms with who they are in college, and the university affords every other student that opportunity," said Romeo, 19, a sophomore who is studying sociology.

In a lawsuit to be filed Wednesday in New Jersey superior court for Essex County, Romeo charges that Seton Hall violated the state law against discrimination and breached its contract with Romeo by failing to adhere to its antidiscrimination policy. The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the school has an enforceable contract with Romeo and must treat him without discrimination. It also seeks unspecified compensation.

Romeo submitted an application November 13 for his group--Trust, Respect, Unity at the Hall--listing himself and 17 others as members. The group would oppose discrimination and serve as a support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and heterosexual students, the application said. It was denied on December 18, with Laura A. Wankel, vice president for student affairs, writing, "No organization based solely upon sexual orientation may receive formal university recognition," even though the Student Organization Activities Committee recommended approval.

"The most compelling guidance from the church directs us to care for the human person whose fundamental identity is as a 'child of God'--not as a 'heterosexual' or a 'homosexual.' The church teaches us that an exclusive focus on a person's sexual orientation denies the fullness of human dignity and diminishes a person in a way that is both reductionist and marginalizing," Wankel wrote. She added a "memorandum of understanding" that would allow the group to operate on campus but with the stipulation that the administration would have to agree to the group's name. Accepting the guidelines meant the group "will neither seek nor expect formal recognition by the university or elsewhere," the
memo said.

Several of the students are interested in the university's offer, Romeo said, but at least four oppose the deal.

Romeo's lawyer, Thomas D. Shanahan, said the school's failure to grant full recognition to TRUTH violates the state law because school antibias policy specifically cites sexual orientation. "If they hadn't done that, the religious exemption applies," he said. Seton Hall spokeswoman Natalie Thigpen said, "The university believes this is the right and lawful way to proceed" and that the memorandum "is still the
subject of discussion."

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