Catholic Florida man reinstated as university senate president by student court ruling

CNA Staff, Oct 26, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- Florida State University’s Student Supreme Court has reinstated Jack Denton as president of the Student Senate. Denton was removed from his post in June over comments in a private chat group for Catholic students which were subsequently circulated to a member of the senate.

In a decision issued Monday, the university court wrote that Denton “contends that his removal as Senate President was improper because the vote of no-confidence was based on unconstitutional retaliation for his private statements in the Catholic Student Union group chat, expressing his religious beliefs, and thus was in violation of his First Amendment rights to Freedom of Speech and Expression.”

“We agree,” the court found. 

In the group chat, Denton had expressed concerns that policy positions of certain groups, such as the ACLU and, contradicted Church teaching on abortion, marriage, sexuality, and policing, and cautioned students to be aware of those positions before they donated to the groups.

He was subsequently accused of transphobia and racism by fellow students and, after a first vote of no-confidence in him failed, he was removed in another vote of the student senate June 5. Denton filed suit against the student senate’s decision in both the university court and in federal court.

The student court found Oct. 26 that “the discussion did not mention the Senate or Student Government Association once, but, in contrast, mentioned religion and God a number of times. As a private citizen, [Denton] was endowed the privileges guaranteed by the Constitution and thus is not barred from bringing this claim under the First Amendment,” the court said.

The court ruled that “the Student Government Association at Florida State University, with its robust network of student advocates and their vast knowledge of public policy and the ever-changing mores of society, [declared that it] possesses such authority as to decide in which cases the United States Constitution is to apply, and in which cases it is not. Unfortunately, for Jack Denton, his case was one in which the Senate felt these rights did not apply.”

Tyson Langhofer, Senior Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been representing Denton in his claims, responded to the announcement on Monday, calling it “commendable.”

“All students should be able to peacefully share their personal convictions without fear of retaliation. As the FSU Supreme Court concluded, the senators ‘during debate reveal that they were neither tolerant nor respectful’ of Jack’s religious beliefs, ” said Langhofer.

“We commend the FSU Supreme Court for acting swiftly and decisively to reinstate Jack to his position as FSU’s Student Senate president while his federal lawsuit continues and for acknowledging the violations of his constitutionally protected right to free speech.”

The FSU court’s decision to reinstate Denton followed an earlier federal court decision which said ordering his return to office “could produce tumult and chaos” and “would, in fact, cause more harm than good.” The student court disagreed, finding that if Denton was not reinstated it “would only deter participation’ in the university’s student government” by other students of faith. 

On Oct. 9,  a federal court ruled that Denton’s claim of a violation of his free speech rights had a likelihood of success, and ordered FSU to pay Denton for six hours of work a week, for the remainder of what would have been his term as student senate president.

The judge granted Denton’s motion for preliminary injunction in part on Friday, ordering that he resume receiving his salary; however, he did not order that Denton be reinstated as president of the student senate.

The federal case is ongoing. University officials have not disputed the facts of the case, but challenged their liability.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, the chair of the U.S. bishops’ religious freedom committee, called Denton’s removal part of a “soft despotism” of anti-religious intolerance in the U.S., in June.

Even though he had privately posted “defenses of, basically, Catholic moral teachings,” Wenski said, “that was a step too far for many of these new Jacobins we see around.”

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