College student suspended for quoting Bible’s anti-gay passages

College student suspended for quoting Bible’s anti-gay passages

In New Jersey, if you preach against homosexuality in the workplace, you’ll probably be sued under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) for sexual-orientation harassment, because the state supreme court defines “harassment” very expansively, at the expense of free speech. But on campus, the First Amendment usually commands a different result, because the federal appeals court in Philadelphia struck down a school harassment code with a definition similar to the NJLAD’s in 2001, in a lawsuit brought by a Christian conservative who disapproved of homosexuality. (See Saxe v. State College Area School District).

Hence, the legal battle after a County College of Morris student was suspended for preaching against homosexuality by citing Bible verses. He is at least temporarily back on campus as he sues the community college under the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects such speech according to the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over New Jersey.

Kombe Sefelino was suspended after complaints he was “observed preaching hate speech on campus in reference to homosexuality and homosexuals.” Dean of Students Janique Caffie sent Sefelino a letter laying out the complaints against him. Caffie suspended Sefelino from campus last November and again this March.

But in a filing after the initial lawsuit, Caffie stated she told Sefelino he could return to campus for any “lawful purpose.” Sefelino’s lawyers are with America First Legal, which filed the lawsuit against the community college. “In this case, the Dean of Students said she runs the campus,” said plaintiff’s lawyer Wally Zimilong. “Basically, she said the [First Amendment] does not apply to speech she does not like. The Dean’s perspective here is emblematic of a view shared by most college administrators that America is fundamentally flawed and that the Constitution and the free-enterprise system are abhorrent.”

Sefelino’s court complaint says he “seeks to inform passersby of the Bible’s teachings, urging them to repent of their sins and put their faith in Jesus Christ.”

“Mr. Sefelino’s preaching will occasionally mention the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality, which condemn homosexuality as a sin and warn practicing homosexuals (and other sinners) that they will not inherit the kingdom of God unless they repent,” the complaint says. “Mr. Sefelino also preaches that every person will stand before God one day to be judged, and that those who do not repent of their sins will suffer eternal punishment in hell, consistent with the Bible and the teachings of Jesus on these matter.”

The campus vice president of human resources, Vivyen Ray, had alleged that Seflino violated the NJLAD; Vivyen Ray accused Sefelino of “[prophesying] about gay people going to hell….we accept everyone here. There is no place for bias at CCM. You should think hard about whether this is the best environment for you.”

If Seflino’s speech did violate the NJLAD, the question would become whether the NJLAD violates the First Amendment. As one judge observed in striking down a campus harassment policy even though it was narrower than workplace racial and sexual harassment law, “since Title VII is only a statute, it cannot supersede the requirements of the First Amendment.” (see UWM Post, Inc. v. Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System (1991)). Laws against discriminatory harassment don’t always trump the First Amendment. A federal appeals court dismissed a racial harassment lawsuit over a professor’s emails that Hispanic employees claimed created a racially hostile environment in violation of federal law, because liability for the emails would have menaced academic freedom. (see Rodriguez v. Maricopa Community College District (2010)).

The community college argued last month in court that the lawsuit should be dismissed as moot because its lawyers told Sefelino he is “permitted to return to the County College of Morris campus for any lawful purpose.” According to their motion papers with the court, this means “changes in circumstances that prevailed at the beginning of the litigation have forestalled any occasion for meaningful relief” now.

Sefelino’s legal team took issue with that, arguing that “the defendants changed their tune and allowed Mr. Sefelino to return to campus only after Mr. Sefelino sued and sought emergency relief from this Court….it has long been settled that a defendant cannot moot a claim for injunctive relief by changing its conduct after a lawsuit has been filed.” Moreover, the college has failed to make clear if Sefelino’s preaching is considered “lawful” or if it will discipline him in the future if he continues.

Sefelino has also asked for payment of his legal fees and the expungement of his disciplinary record, which the community college has not provided.

LU Staff

LU Staff

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