Florida State University settles lawsuit with Catholic student

By Kate Scanlon for CNA

Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., May 26, 2021 / 15:00 pm (CNA).

Florida State University has agreed to a settlement with a Catholic student who sued the school last year over his removal from the student senate for private religious statements.

Jack Denton, a Catholic member of the university’s class of 2021, was removed from his position as president of the student senate last June after comments he made in a private GroupMe text messaging forum were made public.

The particular discussion had focused on racism, including the May 27, 2020 shooting of Tony McDade, a 38 year-old black biological female who identified as a transgender man, by Tallahassee Police. One group member mentioned the ACLU and BlackLivesMatter.com as causes that students could financially support to advance racial justice. Denton argued that certain policy positions of those groups violated the Church’s teachings on abortion and gender issues, and cautioned students against financially supporting those groups.

A member of the Catholic Student Union messaging group sent screenshots of Denton’s texts to the student senate. CNA reported in June that Denton was accused of “transphobic and racist behavior,” and the student senate eventually removed him from office over his texts.

Denton was later reinstated to his position by the student supreme court in October, which said it agreed with him that his removal as head of the student senate was part of “unconstitutional retaliation for his private statements” and a First Amendment violation.

However, Denton sued the university on Aug. 31, 2020, alleging that his religious freedom was violated and that the university’s leadership failed to reinstate him.

This week, the university reached a settlement with Denton, agreeing to pay his lost wages from the loss of his office, as well as $10,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.

Lawyers for Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious liberty law firm, said the school unconstitutionally retaliated against Denton for sharing his personal religious beliefs in a private forum.

“Public universities can’t single out and punish students for their religious beliefs,” ADF Legal Counsel Logan Spena said in a statement on Wednesday. “We are pleased that Florida State has finally affirmed its commitment to students’ First Amendment rights on campus. All students should be able to peacefully share their personal convictions without fear of retaliation.”

As a part of the settlement, the university issued a statement Wednesday saying the school “remains committed to protecting the rights of its students to hold and practice their religious beliefs free of persecution.”

“Every student, no matter their religion, has the right to participate in student organizations and hold positions in student government,” the university’s office of communications stated.

FSU did not immediately respond to a request from CNA for additional comment.

ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, said in a statement that college students “are our future legislators, judges, and voters.”

“That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they’re supposed to be teaching students,” Langhofer said. “Student governments should be encouraging and respecting robust debate and ideas, not silencing and punishing students for expressing their beliefs. We are encouraged that the university has finally reached the right conclusion.”

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

Even though Denton 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.”

A federal district judge ruled in October that the university had 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 ruled that Denton’s claim of a free speech violation had a likelihood of success, but that he was “unlikely” to recover damages and that to reinstate him as student senate president could “cause more harm than good.” Later that month, however, Denton was reinstated by the student supreme court.

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